When my father was a young man, he lost all four fingers on his right hand in an industrial accident. He has gone on to do a remarkable amount of manual work for anyone, let alone a man left with just a thumb on what was previously his dominant hand.
It occurs to me now that we have only ever referred to this right hand as “Dad’s hand”, or, when admiring the feats of strength and dexterity he shows with it, as “his thumb”. Does it matter that we refer, not to what is missing, but what remains?
I think it does.
For all of my facility with adaptive technologies, it would hold me back to be constantly measuring these new ways up to the old visual way of doing things. How much more intrepid am I when I regard myself as a person with a range of skills for living – a limited degree of eyesight, acute hearing and sensitivity to touch, excellent strength and flexibility, intelligence, humour, compassion, resilience, and a pretty good capacity to face down fear and solve problems – rather than as a person who was once fully-sighted, but tragically lost most of her vision and is slowly finding ways to compensate for that loss?
It takes courage to adjust your self-concept to accept what you are, as distinct from regarding yourself as still being what you were, only having suffered a loss. In my case, I ask myself, am I a competent, capable person with low vision or a sighted person who has lost most of their sight?
While I continue to regard myself as the latter, the loss stays fresh and I find myself constantly assessing my new-found skills as poor substitutes for looking, seeing, watching. People do not compare the need to have heir eyes open against any other way of being in the world, but, for someone who loses their sight, there is always the baseline of doing things visually against which to judge adaptations for blindness.
Would my Dad have accomplished as much if he had succumbed to dejection over how much easier things would be with two good hands? If he had focused on the missing fingers, rather than the strength and dexterity of what was left? That is a vivid analogy for choosing to look at the skills and abilities I have rather than focusing on the one ability I have lost. On the one hand, I have only a very limited ability to navigate or discern my surroundings visually but, on the other hand, I still have a bundle of other hard-won skills and abilities with which to navigate the world, to enjoy life and to make a difference to others.
After all, none of us has every benefit, advantage and talent at our disposal, and each of us must choose whether to look at what we are missing, or to assess how we can use what we have to its best advantage for the benefit of ourselves and each other.
Thanks Dad, for showing me how to make the most of what you have. It took me until 37 years of age to realise the significance of that attitude, but I am spectacularly grateful for it now. Oh, and happy 78th birthday.