• Wednesday, July 24, 2024
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‘I liked being blind – people took a lot of notice of me’


I was always rather happy about being “special” as a child. It wasn’t just that I was blind, which people seemed to find very interesting and therefore took a lot of notice of me, which as an incorrigible show-off I liked. It wasn’t even that there were two of us. I had an elder brother, Colin, who was blind, which I began to learn was very unusual, almost exotic; but other people seemed to think this was something called a Tragedy.

For me, it was just a piece of particularly good luck. It meant that I had someone to play with who understood the rules of blind cricket, who was rather clever and able, and who did dangerous things before I did, which stopped people being able to say, “You can’t do that; you’re blind,” and who generally made blindness seem a pretty cool thing. But there was an even more significant badge of specialness that gave my already alarming self-confidence a further boost. I, it appeared, was something called “a million-to-one chance.”

This emerged from one of those conversations I think children often delight in, where parents get carried away in reminiscence and tell you things you only dimly understand. This was the story about how my mother found out Colin couldn’t see. Mother took a grim delight in tales where she had been disbelieved by stuck-up professionals, but proved to have been right all along. “I knew there was something wrong with that baby’s eyes,” she used to tell us, building the suspense. “But old doctor (I’ve forgotten his name now) said all mothers worried about such things; he’d be fine.”

She finally got Colin to a very superior specialist, who held him for a few moments, studied him, then handed him back with the comment: “Not much sight in those, then.”

Mother would deliver that line with bitter relish, and sadly, too many parents will still recognise the diagnostic style. This was wartime, which slowed down any plans for adding to the family, but when they did think about it, part of the consideration was, apparently, the production of a sighted child to look after poor old blind Colin. Back to the doctor’s they went, to be told that the chances of producing another blind child were “a million to one”. So they went ahead, and that was me.

And there the story might have ended, as a glib one-liner for a brash blind broadcaster boosting his income with after-dinner speeches; except that in the following year, mum got pregnant again. This part of the story had never emerged in Mum’s trips down memory lane but, as a teenager, I had just begun to talk to her more seriously, to listen more carefully, to the stories of our family. It was teatime, and it started as a casual chat about how much I would have liked a sister.

At this time I was at an all-boys’ blind boarding school, thinking constantly about girls, and with absolutely no knowledge on which to base such thoughts. I guess I must have thought that having a sister might have helped with such ignorance in some, fortunately unspecified, way. And then mum dropped her bombshell. “Well, you nearly did.”

I didn’t see what was coming.

“How d’you mean?”

Then it all tumbled out. The picture of the young couple with a blind five-year-old and a blind baby, just crawling, living in a cramped post-war prefab; with no knowledge of the prospects for blind children. Would we go to school? Could we get a job? Would we ever marry? And maybe, unspoken – would they ever be free again? And suddenly, the prospect that they might soon be the parents of not two, but three blind children under six.

Put like that, it’s a no-brainer. Mum was back at the doctor’s again. This time, her GP came up trumps. It was realised, despite the stringency of the abortion laws at the time, that this option would have to be considered. I believe you had to have the agreement of at least two doctors and demonstrate unacceptable risks to the mother’s health, mental or physical. The decision was complicated by gender. It was thought that our particular syndrome, in which the optic nerve between the eye and the brain hadn’t developed, might be carried by the mother, but passed only to male children. Both my parents would dearly have loved a daughter, but at this moment were overwhelmed by the difficulties they might be about to face.

I still don’t know about all the conversations that took place, the agonising that would have gone on. I don’t know who tried to influence them, and how much the decision was truly theirs. What I do know is that the abortion went ahead; and that they never knew whether they might have had a little girl, and whether I might have had that sister.

That conversation with my mother was a profound wake-up call for me. For the first time, I felt sad for my parents, and saw the problem from their point of view. Perhaps, having blind children wasn’t such a laugh after all. I think my brother, less extrovert, less bombastic, more sensitive than me, had understood it better: my parents’ grief at having to send their children away to school; the embarrassment on our behalf when we blundered into things or fell over; the knowledge of what we were missing.

Culled from guardian.co.uk