As I walked along the Edgware Road, I felt as though the world was closing in on me. I could no longer hear the sound of busy London traffic, footsteps walking behind me or the buzz of conversation around me. I was anxious just crossing the road.
All the sounds I take for granted had gone. I had entered into a world of silence.
This unsettling experience occurred a few weeks ago when I agreed to ‘go deaf for the day’ to support the work of the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, for which I am an ambassador.
Disabled: John Barrowman negotiates central London traffic with guide dog Robyn after going deaf for a day for charity
When I said yes, I didn’t think it would be a big deal. I certainly didn’t anticipate what a challenge the day would prove to be, or how frustrated, down and exhausted I would feel by the end of a day.
I was sent to see an audiologist at a Specsavers Hearing Centre to be made ‘deaf’.
Silicone material was inserted into my ears, and this quickly set into rubber-like moulds. It created a flattened deafness across all frequencies, reducing my ability to hear by 50 to 60 per cent.
The dramatic impact of the moulds was immediate. Oh my gosh! My hearing went from being really good – I can usually hear low and high tones that other people can’t – to nothing. I felt as if I was in a soundproof room.
It was deafeningly dead, like putting my head in a motorcycle helmet filled with 20in of thick foam. There were no ambient sounds: no noise of cars, no hum of people in the street, no doors closing, no birds chirping. Everything was gone.
Sound of silence: Barrowman, and ambassador for Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, is fitted with silicon moulds to make him deaf
When I hailed a cab to take me to the office of my manager, Gavin, I couldn’t hear what the taxi driver was saying to me. Conversation was impossible. Then, when I reached the office, I had to ring the intercom five times as I couldn’t hear a response.
Everybody said I was shouting at them – I simply wasn’t aware of the volume of my own voice. Gavin kept telling me my phone was ringing, but I didn’t realise.
I was too busy trying to concentrate on reading his lips. And when he tried to tell me a code to put into my phone, I had to keep asking him to repeat it, more slowly. Eventually he lost his patience and snapped at me: ‘Just give me the phone!’ I was shocked.
I’m very aware of deafness. In all of the performances I’ve done in the West End, or pantomimes, we always make sure we have signing shows. And in the Hollow Earth series of children’s books that my sister and I write, we have a deaf character called Zak.
But until I experienced it for myself, I hadn’t realised the huge impact it has on everyday things we take for granted, such as buying a coffee, and how it makes other people treat you differently.
Having to lip-read to work out what people were saying made me realise how few people actually look at you when they are talking. Lip-reading is really difficult – a learned survival gift. Try putting the news on mute and see if you can work out what the newsreader is saying. I can’t.
The day was exhausting and frustrating and I quickly started to feel withdrawn from people around me. It was easier to be on my own than to attempt to communicate. It was very isolating.
People couldn’t be bothered to repeat themselves, so they kept trying to do things for me that I was perfectly capable of doing myself. I felt I’d lost control.
After 28 years in the business, I like to think I know what I’m doing workwise. And usually, when I’m with a film crew, if I have suggestions about how to get a shot, for example, I just tell them and they listen.
Well trained: Hearing dog Robyn responds to signals from ‘deaf’ John, such as putting his hands in the air
But on the day I was ‘deaf’, that didn’t happen. They were really dismissive and wouldn’t let me contribute. When I made a suggestion, they told me to go and sit down and wait. I swear, if I hadn’t had my ears plugged up, I’d have told them exactly where to go!
Instead, I just went and sat down as I was asked. I started feeling withdrawn and insecure about myself, mainly because of the way I was being treated. It turns out that people are not very patient. There were also some funny moments. One guy walked up to me on the Edgware Road and said: ‘John Barrowman! Malcolm Merlyn! Captain Jack! I love you! Can I have your autograph?’
Except that I didn’t hear what he was saying, so I said ‘What?’ and made him repeat it. And he did it all over again. I said: ‘Sorry, still didn’t get it, say it slowly.’
I explained that I was doing an experiment being deaf for the day. Eventually, I just said: ‘I will give you an autograph if you help me across the street.’ Looking perplexed, he said: ‘Fine.’
The second part of the day – when I was introduced to my hearing dog – was far less stressful. In my role as ambassador for Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, I’ve met many people who’ve had their lives transformed by these wonderful dogs. Now, with my simulated deafness, I could experience it for myself.
I was paired with a beautiful, friendly chocolate labrador called Robyn who was going through the training process. I’m a real dog-lover and have never lived in a house without a dog.
My husband Scott and I have two dogs, a Jack Russell and an English cocker spaniel. Neither of them would be good as hearing dogs, though – they’re far too laid-back. But Robyn was everything I expected and more. Her tail didn’t stop wagging from the moment she arrived. She was so excited to meet me, and I felt just the same.
Hearing dogs are amazing. Trained to respond both to sign language and voice command, they are incredibly intelligent and perform several functions for deaf people.
Like other dogs, they are your companions but they also act as your ears – waking you in the morning if you can’t hear your alarm clock, alerting you to the doorbell or telling you when the oven has finished cooking.
Most importantly, they’ll alert you if there’s an emergency that you might otherwise not hear.
When a hearing dog comes to you, you signal to it by putting your hands up in the air and it gets you to follow it to the phone, the cooker, or the front door – wherever the sound is coming from. If the dog lies on its belly, that means ‘Danger, get out!’
During the afternoon I spent with Robyn, she did just that. As soon as the fire alarm went off, she came right up to me, lay on her belly and then led me right out of the room. I really felt I could put my trust in her. Hearing dogs also serve to make what’s an invisible disability more visible. They all wear red coats with ‘Hearing dog’ written on them.
While you don’t want to go down the street with a sign on you that says ‘I am deaf’, having a hearing dog means people know immediately that you might need support and – this is the most crucial point – that they need to look at you when they’re talking. They bring attention to the deaf person in a good way.
Strangers came up and asked me about Robyn, which was a great ice-breaker and encouraged me to talk to new people.
She gave me back the independence that I felt I had lost earlier in the day.
BEING deaf for the day was extraordinarily tiring. I had to work so hard to ‘listen’ with my eyes, get people’s attention and use my other senses to make up for my lack of hearing. It was a huge, exhausting effort. I was really glad to get the moulds out that night, and I slept like a baby.
Until that experience I didn’t realise how much I took my own hearing for granted, or the sorts of emotions and experiences deaf people go through.
It has really helped me to understand the importance of hearing dogs and why people need to be more aware of deafness.
If a deaf person asks you to repeat something, never say: ‘It doesn’t matter.’ It does matter.
I want the public to help more deaf people by donating funds to train more of these wonderful dogs.
Hearing loss is on the rise and hearing dogs change the lives of deaf people. To find out more about Deaf for the Day and make a donation, visithearingdogs.org.uk/jb.
John Barrowman’s latest album, You Raise Me Up, is out now. The Book Of Beasts (Hollow Earth), by John and Carole E. Barrowman, is out this week (Head of Zeus). The new series of Arrow starts on Sky One this autumn.
Interview by Hilary Freeman