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Living the dream

Photo: Ollie’s story: how he achieved his dream of going to the University of Oxford

Experiencing a sudden drop in his hearing and having a cochlear implant aged 15 didn’t stop Ollie fulfilling his dream of going to the University of Oxford.

Ollie (19) vividly remembers the moment he found out he’d been accepted to study history at the University of Oxford. “I was so shocked,” he recalls. “I wasn’t expecting to get in but I’d put a lot of work in. I had to fight to show why I should go because it’s so competitive so it was a real sense of achievement. I’m still proud of it.”

“We were absolutely thrilled!” says dad Phil. “Never in our wildest dreams did we think he’d end up at Oxford.”

Parents Phil and Liz were stunned when Ollie was diagnosed as profoundly deaf at one year old. “We had no idea and felt guilty, isolated, worried about the future and jealous of other parents with ‘perfect’ babies. Yet we were determined to give him as much love and support as possible,” says Liz. “We assumed he’d never talk properly, would possibly never have a loving relationship or get a decent job – it was hard to be positive at the time.”

Ollie was fitted with hearing aids and quickly made good progress with listening and speech. After much agonising, the family decided against cochlear implants as he was doing so well with hearing aids.

Then, when Ollie was 15, something happened which made them revisit that decision.

“I woke up one morning and the hearing in my weaker right ear had gone to virtually nothing, making my hearing aid useless,” says Ollie. “It came back a few weeks’ later but that started discussions about cochlear implants, which were accelerated when my left ear did the same a few weeks after.”

“To suddenly lose 50% of his remaining hearing was a massive blow,” adds Liz. “He didn’t want the uncertainty of one day having hearing and the next not so he decided to have bilateral implants after his GCSEs.”

Ollie was implanted on his right side, where his hearing was worse, but as he experienced complications during the surgery, the surgeon decided against attempting the second implant. “I was disappointed but I think it was fate intervening because I now find my balance of hearing pretty much perfect. I have a good mix of loud, rich sound from the hearing aid and the implant makes it crisper and clearer,” Ollie says.

Ollie enjoyed mainstream school and had good support, including a radio aid. But he found the initial adjustment to hearing with his implant when he started sixth form challenging. “Because I’d got a good level of sound with two hearing aids, it was a real climb down. Getting used to the speech processor and the new kind of sound was difficult. Everything sounded manufactured and metallic. It took about six months to get my hearing up to being better than it was with two hearing aids,” he explains.

“I remember despairing of how little I could hear in noisy environments at sixth form. It got better but I remember feeling scared of missing out and not picking up on everything.”

Ollie thought the implant would put his ambition to go to Oxford on hold, but a year after surgery he went to the open day. “When I saw Oxford first-hand I was just taken aback by the place and it made me want to go for it,” he remembers. “Before my interview I made my college aware I was deaf and I’d be using a radio aid. They were very accommodating.”

Ollie uses his radio aid in lectures and, with heavy reliance on the notetaking support he receives using his Disabled Students’ Allowance, has coped well. “One of the reasons I wanted to go to Oxford is the college system, which has a strong welfare commitment at the heart of it,” he explains. “That was particularly helpful for me in adjusting.”

Increased tiredness from listening has been his biggest struggle. “I’ve been knocked out in the evenings, particularly in the first few weeks. I like to attend talks and try out societies and things but I have to be aware of my limits and know when to go back to my room and just switch off,” he says.

In the college bar, or at social events, he relies heavily on lip-reading. “Voices disappear, especially as lots of the social areas are old, high-ceilinged rooms which aren’t ideal for listening, so I fix on the mouth movements and facial expressions,” he says. “Surprisingly that does seem to carry me through but it’s exhausting.”

Ollie has always been open about his deafness, especially with girlfriend of two years, Ellie (19).

“We met through a mutual friend who mentioned Ollie was deaf and that he wasn’t self-conscious about it but didn’t want to be defined by it,” remembers Ellie. “So I didn’t want to prompt or force him into saying anything. We spoke about it when he took off his hearing aid and showed me how he lip-reads.”

Communication between the couple has never been an issue. “I genuinely forget he’s deaf,” says Ellie. “But I do hand gestures and my mum’s noticed I elongate my vowels and move my mouth in a slightly different way when speaking to Ollie. I’m used to him depending on lip-reading but it’s not a drastic thing. Ollie wouldn’t be the person he is if it wasn’t for his deafness.”