Charlie Swinbourne: Seeing (and hearing) in high-definition

Posted on February 27, 2012

My life’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride over the last three years.

I’ve become a father twice over, have written four films, worked on too many freelance projects to remember, set up this website and best of all, at the end of last summer, I got married to the delightful Mrs Swinbourne. (Just to make clear, that was her name after the ceremony. She wasn’t related to me or anything.)

I’ve loved every minute of it. Well, mostly. Having kids has meant some long nights and nursing a permanent family cold, but there’s also been great joy. Such as seeing our daughters take their first steps, learn to sign, and the general fun of messing around during milk time…

That said, it’s inevitable that when you’re going through major doses of life-change while meeting regular deadlines, you let some things slip.

I noticed around five years ago (yes, that long) that I couldn’t see as well as I used to.

I’ve always had sharp vision, you see, but around the time I started spending all day looking at a computer screen (meaning: I started work) I noticed things that were further away from me were less clear. Street signs. People’s faces in the distance. Maps.

Perhaps the reason I didn’t do anything about it was because my eyesight wasn’t quite bad enough.

I could just about read captions in a theatre, even if they were a bit blurry. And although I wouldn’t recognise my friends walking towards me in the street until they were a few metres away, that didn’t seem to lead to any major feuds.

I only decided to sort it out when I realised something one day in the office, a year ago.

I hadn’t known I was doing it, but every time a hearing person spoke to me, I got up and walked across the room towards them. Automatically. It was a long journey back to my swivel chair when they were only asking if I’d like a cup of tea.

Why was I walking across offices like a hungry puppy at feeding time? Because I couldn’t see people well enough to lipread them.

This article would end perfectly if I said that at that moment, I walked out of the office and went to the opticians over the road, returning with a prescription for glasses, as soaring operatic music played in the background. I didn’t.

I was getting married, you see. And planning a wedding took up the tiny sliver of time left over from the time i needed to devote to my children, my fiancee and work.

Suit. Wedding dress (hers, not mine). Church. Reception venue. Signing DJs. Deaf photographer. Invitations. Order of Service. Hymns. Readings. Childcare. Table Plan. Interpreters. Flowers. Decorations. Stag night. Hen night. I can’t remember the rest but trust me when I say THERE WAS MORE.

So I didn’t get my blurry eyes sorted out straight away. Nope. Instead, I procrastinated for six months.

And with the wedding only a few days away, I made things worse.

I snapped my best mate in half. Not my pal Steve from Lancashire, fortunately, but my right-side hearing aid. My favourite side.

I wanted to blow wax out of it, but as I prepared to do so, I broke the hard plastic arm that connects the soft tube that runs to the mould and aid.


I had no choice but to replace it with an old in the ear hearing aid that I hate.

Not only did it make my voice sound really really LOUD, but crucially it didn’t match the sound of the other ear.

Everything was distorted. I felt like I was shouting all the time, and I had no idea which side certain sounds were coming from. I started crossing roads very cautiously indeed.

The hearing aids didn’t just sound different, either. They looked different.

One of them was silver and flash, a behind the ear model with a plastic mould and a tube connecting it all together.

The other was boringly beige, and just sat there in my ear, like a protective ear-plug people wear at music festivals.

As my beloved walked down the aisle towards me, she set eyes on a man (just to be clear: me) who was perfectly suited and booted, but had furnished his ears with the audiological version of odd socks.

Fortunately, after a glass of champagne, I didn’t think too much about the fact I couldn’t hear or see too well. The day was perfect.

When I got back from honeymoon, I made two appointments. One to the audiology clinic, and the other to the opticians. Phew. What was so hard about that?

I can’t put into words the relief I felt a few days later when I came out of Charing Cross hospital able to hear in twin-engine stereo once more. I felt like I was my real self again.

Life’s even better now. After visiting the opticians, I have spanking-new contact lenses and a pair of glasses.

Who knew there were quite so many stars visible in the night sky above the metropolis? Captioned theatre no longer gives me a headache. And I can see friends walking towards me in the distance, our first words to each other no longer them saying “didn’t you see me waving?” and me replying “errr…”

Best of all, now I ‘hear’ as well as I possibly can, because as well as getting my hearing aids fixed, I see as clearly as I possibly can. Life feels more relaxed and I understand so, so much more.

I can follow signers from a mile away.

I’m lipreading conversations at thirty paces.

I could put this to use.

I could be a spy.

Charlie Swinbourne is the Editor of Limping Chicken. He has written for The Guardian and BBC Online about deaf culture, as well as contributing to programmes on television and radio. He has also written award-winning dramas featuring deaf characters. Here’s his personal website.

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