A very strange children’s book sat among the more regular titles at my grandparents’ house, and it fascinated me. I have it next to me now as I write. Published in 1959, Arthur Calder-Marshall’s ‘The Fair To Middling’ (illustrated by the young Raymond Briggs) tells a tale of children and teachers from a School for Incapacitated Orphans. Each has something that makes them different, such as albinism or blindness, something they don’t want, but along with them special qualities and abilities. Such as Peter, who “could not see anything or anybody clearly…but he could feel the finest things…and he could hear things in people’s voices that other people could not hear”. Through strange encounters at the fair, each is offered a choice to lose their ‘incapacity’. But would it be what they imagine, and hope for, and at what cost? Different choices are made. Teacher Rose Oxley, who decides not to trade her burned face, talks about ‘a different sort of miracle’ from physical change – “to choose to be what you are… Accept that. Choose it for what it gives you.”
It’s an interesting question for those of us with a disability to mull – would we be rid of it? Would that involve losses as well as gains? I’ve been asked this before – if someone could wave a wand (I’m assuming this would be a quick and painless intervention!) and restore my hearing, would I take that? Absolutely, yes. I wouldn’t hesitate. (I would be a rubbish character in Calder-Marshall’s book!) Of course the answer is always going to be highly personal, but I wonder if it is significant that I wasn’t a deaf child. My hearing has declined gradually, since early adulthood. I have seen it as a loss, something I’ve had to adapt to, something that’s separate from me, an unwelcome visitor. It’s easy to list the things it has cost me, but what about gains? Has it given me anything? In all honesty I’m struggling to think of something. Perhaps it has rounded some of my sharp edges, but I’ve had other life experiences that have done that, I think. I’d be very interested to hear how other people answer this for themselves; how they see the balance of loss and gain, and whether they would change it.
This time of recovery from my cochlear implant surgery, before I get ‘switched on’, is an opportunity to reflect on my hearing journey so far and on the changes ahead. This is a new beginning, but what can I expect? This is no waving of a wand to restore my hearing. But it does seem a modern kind of miracle, a miracle of technology, offering things that were unimaginable not so long ago. It’s tricky to hold in balance high hopes for significant improvements in my hearing, bolstered by the testimonies of cochlear implant recipients who have found it ‘life-changing’, and an awareness that the outcomes are unknowable. There is evidence that people at my level of hearing loss and worse stand to benefit from a cochlear implant. But the extent and nature of the benefits for me are largely unknown. However, I have taken the first step. I have said yes to this opportunity, and I feel so grateful to be given this chance of better hearing. What must follow now will be months of hearing rehabilitation, lots of hard work on my part and expert input from the fantastic Oxford team.
It seems appropriate that I had my surgery in a late flash of summer heat, which has given way to autumn mists; a time of transition. I was told it was a promising time to begin this journey, being the Jewish new year, the time of a new moon, and smiled when the Bible reading thrown up for the day was the verse from Isaiah, “See, I am doing a new thing!”
So many new beginnings associated with this time of year. Among them, I am remembering a day in early September, 34 years ago, when my uncle and aunt collected me and my belongings from my nurse’s accommodation to take me back to Mum’s house, from where I’d soon embark on my new life as a history undergraduate. On the seat of the car was an Oxford academic diary, full of lovely photos of the place where I was to spend the next three years. Such a thoughtful gift that symbolised the enormous change I was making. So exciting! I suppose my equivalent this week is the brochure from the cochlear implant company, giving me a glimpse of possibilities ahead. As I recover from surgery, I am getting ready for this new thing, looking ahead with hope, and glad that I chose to say yes.