A helping paw: What's life like for deaf civil servant Lisa Baldock and her hearing dog Inca?
Deaf civil servant Lisa Baldock has been on a mission to improve the working lives of disabled civil servants across government – something possible thanks to the life-changing impact of her hearing dog, Inca. Jess Bowie finds out more
Lisa Baldock and Inca. Picture credit: DWP
Your hearing loss began when you were very young. What are your memories from that time?
They didn’t detect my deafness until I was three years old – it was very difficult to diagnose. I just didn’t speak – didn’t communicate. You can imagine it was quite hard for my parents. Then I was diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss, meaning that the cochlea inside my ear doesn’t work very well, and I got my first set of hearing aids. I had what could be described as a manageable hearing loss: I could hear a bit.
When did you join the civil service, and what’s your role at the Department for Work and Pensions?
I’ve worked for the DWP since 2001. I worked on the frontline initially and then I changed jobs into a back-office administration role.
How you were brought together with Inca?
About seven years ago, I had a virus which meant my hearing went into decline. I found that I became quite a recluse – quite depressed, quite isolated, including in the office. I struggled with relationships, with my work – and with progressing my career. I struggled with everything.
Hearing aids weren’t giving me the support that I needed, so one day my husband turned to me and said: “I think you should apply for a hearing dog.”
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At first I was in denial: “No no no, I can cope.”
Finally I applied, and they said I was suitable – this was in 2008. But it’s a long process and I had to wait quite some time to be matched with Inca. I only got her in 2012, so it was a four-year wait.
A lot of people don't know about hearing dogs. How do they help deaf people?
Hearing dogs are trained to recognise certain sounds and then to alert their owners. Each dog is matched to your specific needs. With Inca, I had a list of sounds I wanted: doorbell, doorknocker, oven timer, fire alarm, bomb alert, someone calling my name in the other room – it goes on. There are about 11 sounds. She doesn’t do the phone as I don’t generally answer the phone.
There are a variety of breeds that become hearing dogs and little dogs will paw at you to alert you. But Inca’s got big claws that would scratch me, so she just taps me with her nose.
When she hears one of the noises she’s trained to recognise, she’ll tap me and I’ll say: “What is it?” And she will then guide me to that sound. When the fire alarm goes off she’s trained to nudge me and then lie flat on the floor. If she nudges me and then lies down, I know that’s a danger sign – that something is going on. It’s quite uncanny.
In fact, she recently saved my father-in-law’s life. He’s deaf and he was having a stroke, and she detected that. That’s not normally part of her job, but she lay down by his side and then my husband heard her growling so we went through and I looked at my father-in-law and saw straight away that she had detected that.
What impact has Inca had on your personal life – and on your career?
Having Inca has changed my world. After I got her, I didn’t have to depend on anybody to tell me when the fire alarm, the doorbell, the oven timer were going off. And at work, I suddenly had more confidence because people started to interact with me more. People came to talk to me who wouldn’t talk to me before. I know it sounds sad – but it was true.
I need to sit in my own office because I've also got tinnitus, so that can be a bit isolating sometimes. But now, because people know I’ve got Inca, they come and see me and have a chat. Sometimes I become the office agony aunt! But it’s not just about that. Having Inca has really helped me in my career, and it’s given me the ability to show that I've got other skills, which is what I was struggling with before.
For the past four years, I’ve also been a speaker for the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. It’s a voluntary role that the charity gave me training for, and that’s also helped to give me skills and the confidence to go out and talk to people.
Have you tried any other methods to manage your hearing loss?
A few years ago, I went for an operation for cochlear implants. The implants aren’t a cure for hearing loss, but they are a sophisticated synthetic device which is there to support you electronically. Because I was born deaf, I will never understand sound properly.
The first operation didn’t work out very well. At one point, they switched off the device and I had no hearing at all for something like three months. My line manager in DWP was fantastic. She went out and bought a load of notepads and we just communicated by pen and paper for a few months.
I could have gone off sick, but I chose not to because I thought: “I’ve got Inca.” I had the confidence to do that. Before, I would have gone off with stress.
You’ve been involved with the Disability Passport. Could you say more about that?
This last year has been incredible for me because I have been working alongside HR, the Diversity & Inclusion Team and the Civil Service Workplace Adjustment Team. And I've had a lot of influence in trying to improve deaf services.
I’ve also had a bit of influence with the Disability Passport. I got fed up with change, which happens a lot in the civil service. I was basically changing line managers like anybody’s business: one year I had seven different line managers – which was down to a combination of me changing roles and my managers changing roles. I really struggled with that, so I decided to design myself a “tip list” to help new managers understand my needs. I then took that list to the Diversity and Inclusion Team and told them how helpful it was. That list then got transferred into the passport.
And from that it’s just grown and grown: the idea of a tip list began to be used for across the DWP in my region, then became used nationally for DWP, and now the Civil Service Workplace Adjustment Team has adopted it, so it’s used civil service-wide. I have also heard that many private companies have adopted it too – like Barclays and Fujitsu.
I should have patented it – I’d be a millionaire by now! However, the most important thing is that it’s doing what I sought to do in breaking down barriers – supporting disabled people in the workplace and improve those conversations on how to help our staff who have a disability.
You recently won an award…
Yes, in March I won an award from the High Sheriff of Hampshire for services to the community. I was nominated by Hearing Dogs for my work with them and also my DWP work. I've done a lot of travelling, a lot of talking to people about my situation. Some of it I don’t get paid for, but I did it because I enjoyed doing it, and because I was giving something back to help people with disabilities or hearing loss.
It’s quite a highly-regarded award, and winning it just blew me away – I didn’t expect it at all. But it meant a lot to me, especially as a lot of the other winners were groups. I was the only individual that won one. I didn’t even know what a sheriff was!
What are you up to now?
I’ve been on secondment into the Reasonable Adjustments Team to have a look at overall commercial contracts and instil some knowledge into them about deaf culture, deaf services and deaf awareness.
I am now seeking other opportunities to help myself develop. One example of that is that I’m currently half-way through the Civil Service Academy.
The best thing about the last few years is that I’ve got my mojo back. Having Inca by my side has given me the confidence to move forward with my career.
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