Hear – and there

Millions of people saw Jo Milne’s reaction when she began to hear. Now she is helping deliver the same gift to children in Bangladesh

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In 2014, Jo Milne was propelled into the limelight when a video showing her hearing for the first time went viral. The heartwarming clip showed Milne, born deaf, dissolve into floods of tears after having cochlear implants fitted.

“My life has changed since that moment. Even now, two years later, it has just been absolutely phenomenal,” says Milne, 42. Since then she’s written her memoir, appeared on news broadcasts around the globe – a film about her recently went out in Japan – and campaigned on deafblindness. But her latest project is the one she’s most proud of.

Small children beam and move their heads in the direction of unfamiliar sounds

Last year she went out to Bangladesh to help distribute hearing aids to deaf children. Five per cent of Bangladeshi children are profoundly deaf, according to the documentary The Gift of Hearing which follows Milne’s visit to establish a clinic in Dhaka, with the help of charities the Hearing Fund UK and the Starkey Foundation, and provide hearing aids for more than 500 children.

The results would melt even the frostiest heart. Small children beam and move their heads in the direction of unfamiliar sounds, and mothers are overcome with emotion as they are able to talk with their children. Milne is right in the midst of it all, on hand for hugs and often in tears herself. “It was very, very emotional for me, because no two children are the same. Every experience was different and just as emotional,” she says.

“Their family is there and they’re witnessing it. When they hear their parent’s voice for the first time and they look up, it’s just absolutely incredible. For me the most moving thing was all about the eyes – the way their eyes just light up. I know what’s coming next but they don’t because they’re just children – it’s the moment that I’m witnessing them hearing for the very first time.”

Milne has Usher Syndrome, which as well as leaving her deaf from birth, is also gradually taking her sight through retinal pygmosis – “like looking through a tunnel, but the tunnel is drawing in”. That necessitated the cochlear implant, and explains why she is so emotional in that much-viewed clip. “It was like losing one sense and regaining another sense – it was just incredible. In that video I can remember being able to hear from the left, right and above, and it was like I had an awareness of the world around me.

“The implant filled in all the missing blanks. Although I’m still deafblind and I was before I had the cochlear implant, I feel less blind than I was three years ago, but it’s only because the hearing is doing that for me now.”

The Bangladesh project is the fulfilment of a longstanding dream, only made possible by her sudden fame. As a 13 year old in her native Gateshead, she was told by her friend Amina, originally from Bangladesh, that only deaf children from wealthy families could get a hearing aid in the country. “I can remember being very shocked by that because I had just taken it for granted. We have the NHS. I started wearing hearing aids when I was two years old.

“It was something that we often spoke about, and when we were 13 we used to talk about what we dreamed and what we would like to do and we always said: ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if one day we could do this?’”

Amina got married, moved to Bangladesh and the pair lost touch for 20 years – until Milne’s video caught the world’s attention. “When my YouTube clip went viral she heard about it because she was watching it on the BBC World News out in Bangladesh and couldn’t believe that there I was.

 Milne at a clinic in Bangladesh filming the BBC documentary.
Milne at a clinic in Bangladesh filming the BBC documentary (Andrew Hartley)

“Then when we got back in touch again we said: ‘Remember what we always used to say as children?’”

The project was born with the help of the Hearing Fund UK, for which Milne is now an ambassador. The charity was founded by Justin Osmond, son of Merrill of pop group the Osmonds, which was originally formed to raise money for their two deaf brothers.

Milne is also filmed visiting deprived rural communities outside Dhaka. She meets a family with three deaf children, and also 16-year-old Morium, who has a hearing aid, and chats about the improvement it has made to her life. She says having hearing aids fitted can help to overcome the sense of isolation that deafness brings, increase confidence and boost speech and language development.

She was inspired by the deaf teenagers she met, watching them come together, exchanging phone numbers and social media details and talking to each other in sign language. “There was a positive feel about being deaf… I personally don’t think deafness is a disability. I think it’s just a language barrier.”

It has been a whirlwind two years for Milne. Press camped outside her parents’ home when her video first went round the world, and scores of people got in touch with her, some to send musical compositions to listen to. Last year, BBC’s Inside Out took her to some of the most beautiful sights in the North East and Cumbria. All the while, she has been getting accustomed to her new cochlear implants, learning vocabulary and recognising words without lip-reading.

“Even two years later I still get quite tearful when I hear new words. Or I meet somebody I haven’t seen for a few years, like family members. Only recently I was in Australia with family members I’ve known all my life but never met them with the implant. And I’d hear the Australian voices – it was incredible.”

But, Milne says, the best part of her new public standing has been being able to raise awareness of Usher Syndrome. “It’s a very misunderstood condition, because we don’t appear to look blind but people don’t get that. I can have a white cane or a guide dog or can struggle getting on a train, and then I can start reading a newspaper or start texting on my phone and I can actually see the look of disbelief on people’s faces because they think: ‘You can see what you’re doing.’ But that is Usher Syndrome. I’m trying to raise awareness of that – that people who are deafblind are not necessarily totally deaf and totally blind.”

She hopes that the documentary can remove people’s misconceptions about deafness, encourage them not to take their senses for granted and understand what it must be like for a child to be deaf. And she is adamant this will not be her only visit. “I feel a connection to Bangladesh now so I can’t just leave it. I can’t just turn away from it. It’s just the start.”

The Gift of Hearing is now available on the BBC iPlayer

Main photo: Sean Elliott

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