"With Babs by my side, I feel able to face anything"
Posted by Matt Sadler
Sally Harris (57) spent her first five years in and out of hospital. She had been diagnosed with brittle bone disease (osteogenesis imperfecta, or OI) at six weeks old after a fractured femur.
In 1961 there was little in the way of support offered to Sally or her parents. She suffered a further five fractures that year. Aged five, Sally was sent to a school where all the children had disabilities:
“I was always aware that I was different from the people I grew up with, but when I reached school age I was sent away to a residential school where everyone was disabled. I loved the learning and school bit, but I hated living there. It was very institutional and strict; nothing like home.
“I left school at 16 to go into mainstream education where life suddenly became much more challenging. At college I was the only disabled person and I realised I had a lot of life lessons to catch up on. After college I got a job at Barclays Bank – a career I enjoyed for 18 years until I had to retire due to ill health.
“There’s always been a degree of uncertainty with my physical health, but it was deafness that affected my life and happiness the most. I didn’t lose my hearing until I was 24. From having quite normal hearing, I became profoundly deaf within two to three months.
“It had started with me having a bad cold. But afterwards, when I still couldn’t hear properly, I was referred to an ENT specialist. I was shocked and later angry that neither I, nor my parents, had been told that deafness was even a possibility for someone with OI.
“While I was trying to get my head around this new challenge, my hearing specialist suggested I get a hearing dog. I thought about it for a year – it was a big decision as I had no previous experience with dogs.
“I was matched with my first hearing dog, Poppy (a black Labrador), in 2000. During my training week I almost gave up. Having a dog to care for was physically very hard work for me. But the next morning, when she woke me to the alarm clock and I looked into her deep brown eyes, I knew she would make life so much better for me.
“After I got Poppy I started to go out more. It was only then that I realised how difficult life had been. I’m naturally outgoing but so much energy went into everyday communication that I’d started to seek solitude. I’d lived alone for many years happily, but it was only after losing my hearing that I experienced loneliness.
“When I lost Poppy I wondered if another dog could ever match that special relationship. Then three years ago I was partnered with Babs, a Labrador/Retriever cross. She strolled confidently into my life and has been by my side ever since.
“Because of my OI, I need a dog that is gentle and calm to avoid me getting injured accidentally. I use a manual wheelchair, an electric wheelchair and a hydraulic lift that assists getting me into and out of the van I drive. Babs takes it all in her stride and that’s due to the fantastic preparation by the trainers and volunteers, who helped her grow into this amazing and clever dog.
“As well as hearing sounds for me, Babs will pick things up from the floor, get my slippers and help unload the washing machine. I’m currently teaching her to tidy her toys into the basket; which she does willingly, but then gets so excited that she runs off with another toy in her mouth! She makes me laugh every day and brings joy into my life.
“I’m typical of someone with OI – I’m of short stature; had frequent fractures growing up, leading to some deformity; have excessive mobility in my joints with soft tissue and ligament weakness, making me prone to injury; and have blue sclera in my eyes. My biggest concern is not living with OI, it’s losing the little bit of hearing I have left. But then if I did, while my life would certainly get more challenging, with Babs by my side I honestly feel able to face anything.”
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