Rebecca Atkinson: Why the NHS is the greatest social leveller deaf and disabled people have

Posted on September 29, 2014

Life is a bunch of straws. You pull some longs ones. You pull some short ones.

Maybe you got born into a family with money. Or maybe you got born into a family on the brink of existence with barely enough to eat. You don’t get the choice.

Maybe you got good health, a fully working body, or maybe at the roulette of your creation you picked up a genetic condition like me which saw me born partially deaf and later develop an eye condition which will slowly cause me to lose my vision.

It’s unfair. It’s random, but it could be worse.

I could have been born 91 years ago like Labour Party Conference delegate Harry Smith.

Last week at the Manchester conference, Smith gave a passionate ovation-inspiring plea for the NHS as he recalled growing up in the slums of Barnsley in a time when there was no public health service.

When medicine was the preserve of the rich alone and chance, luck and charity were all poor people had if they lived with a disability or caught a disease.

Smith described his parents’ struggle not just to feed and clothe their children, but to keep them alive. His sister caught TB. They couldn’t afford health care. They couldn’t afford to keep her alive. Her ten year old life was cheap. She died and her nameless body was thrown into a pauper’s grave.

For someone like me, born after the creation of the NHS in 1948, listening to Smith talk of bread and dripping and children dying at home because of a lack of medicine seemed to come from a different age.

But this was recent history, so fresh in the mind of this articulate 90 year old man, it was like yesterday to him.

Smith’s age, wisdom and clarity made the Labour delegates and their Tory counterparts elsewhere appear so baby faced, ignorant, too young to be charged with running the country.

Listening to him you could almost feel and smell the poverty Smith described, and no-one watching could ever want to return to that time, perhaps least of all a deaf or disabled person like me for whom the NHS not only saves lives but represents – along with the Welfare State – the greatest social leveller our country knows when you find yourself, through no reason but vagaries of chance and genetics with a body that does not work the same as others.

Put simply, if I, like Smith, had been born before the creation of the NHS, my life would have been very different.

In 1979 at the age of three, the NHS diagnosed me as being deaf. The NHS went on to fit me with two hearing aids.

My growing ears meant I needed new rubber moulds fitted every six months. The hearing aids needed new batteries every week. The NHS provided them.

Every year the NHS tested my hearing. Every five years the NHS gave me new hearing aids as technology and the quality of amplification improved.

Then in 1992 the NHS diagnosed me with a degenerating eye condition. There is no cure or treatment but the NHS is researching to find one for future generations.

I’ve collided with the NHS more than most. I’ve sat in waiting rooms alongside richer people than me and poorer people than me and we were all treated equally.

The NHS gave me these tangible things, but they also gave me something else. Being able to receive free health care and in my case hearing aids, the NHS gave me access to language, music, culture, mainstream education and information that would have been far harder to access without them.

Without hearing aids I cannot hear conversation. I cannot talk on the phone. I cannot hear the radio or follow a class. NHS hearing aids give me the chance to hear the most I can. They give me a chance to compete on a more level playing field with the rest of the world.

Growing up with the NHS also fed into a sense of identity, one where I was not reliant on the charitable benevolence of others to give me access to sound, but one where I just received it without question, the same as the next person or the one after that, regardless of who we were or what we had in our pocket.

And for a child growing up deaf or disabled what more important message is there than to tell them they are equal to others. That their financial or social position won’t impact on their medical chances, they won’t have to stand cap in hand, or watch a richer person hear the world with hearing aids or a cochlear implant whilst they can’t afford to try out anything but the deafness nature gave them.

I know not all deaf people want or find hearing aids or cochlear implants useful, but that should always be a personal choice rather than lack of universal provision.

Harry Smith told the Manchester conference that Britain ‘must never let the NHS free from our grasp”. I can only agree.

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