2010 was a strange year in many ways. But for my family it’s ended on a massive high.

I woke this morning to the shock news that Janet Mary Howitt – my mum (pictured) – has been awarded an MBE for services to people with visual impairment and to the community in Devon.  Of course, the short blurb in the Guardian (one whole sentence!) doesn’t do a life’s work justice, and lots of people have asked me what she did, so I’m going to try and summarise it here, and of course because I am immensely proud.

My mum worked all her life as a speech therapist. This is not the same thing as elocution lessons teaching people how to speak proper: she was a mechanic to the voice boxes of people with serious speech impediments. If you ever lose your voice you can maybe glimpse the terror of not being able to speak for yourself: often as the result of a stroke or pure accident of nature, you stammer or your speech is slurred so that people assume you are deficient in other ways.

The job calls for the fusion of science, art and care: speech is a highly technical thing, and sufferers often lost confidence along with their voices. My mum worked to rebuild the confidence of her patients as well as their speech: many of them went on to become her friends. Often beyond the call of duty she acted as advocate to many who couldn’t persuade the system of their needs themselves. And she acted as counsellor to those who struggled emotionally to come to terms with their loss of voice.

For several decades she plugged away at the gaps in the NHS and started to build a second voluntary career in her spare time. For ten years she led a team, primarily in Sidmouth but also at the Exeter Northcott, providing audio descriptions of plays for the visually impaired so that they could enjoy the performances as much as everyone else. She read talking books for Calibre. For twenty years she volunteered for Exmouth Talking Newspaper, a service that is a vital lifeline for many people to get their local news in a form they can actually use. She also set up and acted as co-ordinator to a self-help group for some of the people she had helped who had had strokes.

So this award reflects a whole lifetime of service to people who really needed it. In a world where people can get knighted just for extorting shedloads of money out of others, this proves there is at least some sanity left in the system. And I want to say this: for every person honoured, there are hundreds of thousands just as worthy out there who didn’t. An award is partly the result of well-connected friends and supporters, not just the value you add. Service is of course a reward in itself, so don’t volunteer for stuff because you might get recognised by the government (chances are you won’t): do it for the itch you want to scratch, and you’ll build a network of goodwill stretching further than you can imagine.

Finally, I’m writing this because I have just about worked out that she will never now learn to use a computer. My mum has been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of dementia and thankfully this award has arrived in time for her to understand just how much love for her there is in the world. When I saw her yesterday she was overwhelmed by the sheer number of messages of congratulation that came through and she is finally realising just how many people love her.

Whatever I do in my life from now on, I’ll never be as awesome as my Mum. So on New Year’s Eve 2010, this one’s for her. I am proud and honoured to be her son and I couldn’t have had a better mother, friend and role model. Happy New Year, Janet Mary Howitt MBE.

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