Living With a Hearing Disability: Single-Sided Deafness (SSD)
Single-sided deafness is more common than people think. As an invisible disability, it is often misunderstood or overlooked.
Single sided deafness (or SSD, as I will refer to it from now on) comes in varying levels, from partial to complete hearing loss in one ear. This article is about my personal experience. I will share my tips and advice for others who are living with the same condition.
Being Deaf in One Ear
For as long as I remember I have been completely deaf in my right ear.
The first time I realized my hearing was different from that of other kids was at a friend's birthday party. We were playing "Chinese Whispers," and I had to pass on a message that had been whispered into my completely deaf ear. The girl sitting next to me wasn't allowed to repeat what she'd said, and I didn't hear her at all. I had to make something up. The end result was hilarious, although at the time I felt more embarrassed and isolated by the experience.
I have two older sisters, and one of them has the same problem. My sister's SSD was not diagnosed until a hospital trip after she fell off a climbing frame at school. It was assumed that this was when she lost half her hearing—and my parents thought I was copying her when I said I was deaf in my right ear, too! My SSD was not confirmed until I was 5 years old. This leads us to believe the condition is hereditary, although the cause of our hearing loss has never been properly diagnosed.
It has, however, been closely monitored throughout our childhood. I lost count of the times I had to be called out of class at school for hearing tests, just to be told that that yes, I was still deaf in one ear! Oh, really? I hadn't noticed!
I once asked my mother why my sister and I had to keep having these tests. They often involved having incredibly loud, windy sounds played in my good ear, while attempting to hear beeps in my deaf one. Sometimes the windy sounds were so loud they gave me double vision! (I could often feel the vibrations of the beeps, so I was able to guess when there were sounds, which made the test quite useless.)
My mother explained that the purpose of the tests was to make sure my hearing didn't get worse (quite ironic considering the volume!). I then lived in fear of losing hearing in my good ear, too. I even believed I would be deaf by the time I grew up! Now, aged 30, and still with perfect hearing in my left ear, I can rest assured that this will not happen. But as a child it was confusing and scary.
While I'm sure the tests were intended to be helpful, they just made me feel like something was wrong with me, and made me fear for my hearing. These are all reasons I believe that there should be more comprehensive information available and a clear diagnosis of the type of hearing loss involved. This will also in turn help parents to know how to deal with a child with SSD.
If Your Child Has SSD
Growing up with single-sided deafness can be tough. Given time, we can learn to adapt and thrive, becoming successful adults with little to no hindrance in our daily lives. Here are things I wish my parents had known while I was growing up:
- Do not make your child feel disabled. one of the biggest factors when it comes to dealing with SSD, or many disabilities, is that much of what gets you through life is how you view yourself and what you are capable of. We all have the power to achieve great things; being constantly told you cannot do this or that, or cannot function normally because of your hearing, will only hold you back. Your child will believe they are disadvantaged and may lack confidence in their abilities as a result. Yes, SSD has it's disadvantages. But I believe it has it's advantages too. Being deaf in one ear means the glass is half full- not half empty.
- Do not assume your child can/cannot do things. SSD varies in severity, and as hearing occurs in the brain and not the ears, the condition may be processed differently depending on the individual. I for example have incredibly acute hearing in my left ear, which I believe compensates. I have heard that SSD can affect learning, speech, maths, reading and writing. As far as I am concerned, this is a myth- I have been fully proficient, in fact above average in all of these things. On the other hand, not hearing well in class has it's disadvantages, and it all depends on the method of teaching and level of background noise in the classroom.
- Encourage your child to be open and explain to others about their condition. SSD is not something your child should be ashamed of. Unfortunately special treatment at school and teasing can cause them to feel otherwise, but they need to learn from early on that any issues people have are not their fault- it is often lack of understanding. Being open and telling friends and teachers about being deaf in one ear will help, but it should be something your child chooses to do when they are ready.
- Do not make an issue out of it. Sometimes my mother would remind me of being deaf in one ear when I wasn't even thinking about it. She would often overcompensate or talk directly into my ear when I could have heard her perfectly fine otherwise. If your child feels their hearing is not an issue, don't make it one. Usually people with SSD can get by just fine without people having to shout or talk directly into their ear. Do not fuss over a child with SSD, or insist they get a hearing aid or corrective surgery. If your child is unhappy and wants to look into hearing aids/surgical help, do so. But be aware not all SSD can be corrected.
How SSD Impacts Your Life
I often forget I have what is considered to be a disability. It is only certain situations that remind me of it. In fact, I was blissfully unaware of what I was missing out on until quite recently, a few years ago, after reading several articles on the condition about certain abilities people with SSD are lacking:
- Hearing in stereo: People with complete SSD are monoaural. They cannot hear in stereo, there is only one channel of sound.
- Picking out and understanding a voice in a noisy environment: I had no idea that other people could home in on a voice in a noisy crowd and hear it clearly! When I listen to a conversation and there is background noise (especially other voices) the sounds all blur into one flat mono channel and are almost incomprehensible. People with normal hearing can selectively hear a single voice against background sounds and focus on it- which seems like magical eavesdropping to me!
- Locating sound direction: One of the most awkward effects of SSD is the lack of ability to locate the direction of sound. Being called by friends in a crowd, or from across the street is an example of how embarrassing SSD can be. I used to spin around looking wildly in all directions trying to guess who was calling me and where the hell they were. I now tell everyone I know not to do this, because it is useless unless they have a neon sign above their heads to help me locate them in a crowd! However, they often forget and still call me across a busy street, which forces me to stand and wait until they become more visible.
- Locating sound distance: Nor did I know people with normal hearing could locate the distance of sounds; don't they just get louder or quieter?
- Social stigma: There is a social stigma surrounding deafness of any kind in the hearing world, and kids and adults alike often tease and joke about being deaf if you ask them to repeat something more than once. Yet, SSD is worlds apart from being truly deaf- you still have the gift of hearing, and you cannot relate to the deaf world. I cannot understand sign language, and as I can hear perfectly well so long as there is no excessive background noise, I do not feel the need to learn. I am hopeless at lip reading. People with SSD don't really fit into either world.
- Lack of understanding: Many people do not understand SSD and treat those with it as though they are stupid. One such person was an old geography teacher I had. One day he asked me to fetch an Indian boy from another class to see him. Now there were two boys with similar names; one was called Jatinder and one was called Jeetender. I went and got the wrong boy didn't I? He mocked me in front of everyone when I got back and called me a 'handicap to the class'. This is a perfect example of how ignorant and insensitive teachers can be when dealing with SSD.
As far as I am concerned, I have never felt that my SSD was disabling- despite that spiteful geography teacher- yes it can lead to awkward situations at times, but I am just grateful that I can hear. I can listen to music, I can hear my own and others voices, and sounds of all kinds. My hearing in my left ear is better than some peoples hearing in both! I can hear high pitched frequencies that many others cannot. I have some musical skills and can play by ear, although musical ability and tone deafness have nothing to do with hearing ability (much as artistic ability and spacial awareness have nothing to do with sight). I may not be able to hear in stereo, locate the direction and distance of sound, or fully understand a conversation among other conversations, but the rest of the time I can hear well and I am grateful for it.
How to deal with SSD
One of the key things I have found to help cope with SSD is humour, and the ability to laugh and not take my mistakes too seriously. Sometimes my brain interprets things people say as the most ridiculous things- which says quite a bit about my imagination! Comic relief has helped to get through awkward situations while growing up. I notice people don't hold back as much when it comes to making fun of this kind of disability either- someone in a wheelchair might not be the butt end of quite so many jokes (although I am sure such a disability is far worse in many ways).
Another important lesson I have learnt is to be open and tell people as soon as possible about being deaf in one ear. I don't like to introduce myself in this way—because I don't like to be identified as '"that half-deaf girl", plus I like to give people time to regard me as 'normal' before thinking they have to shout or talk to me slowly like a halfwit. But as soon as I feel comfortable I will explain. Particularly if someone asks why I keep swapping sides if they walk on my right-hand side. The worst thing is for unsuspecting people to be rude or angry because they don't realize I have a hearing problem, and think I am just ignoring them, blanking them, or not paying attention. Explaining the issue resolves this (now it's up to them to remember!).
Most important of all: be grateful for what you do have. It's easy to feel miserable and full of self-pity if you suffer from SSD, especially is you were not born with the condition like me and have experienced what you are now missing out on. But do not take for granted that you can still hear. Try to count your blessings and see the good side (no pun intended) of being deaf in one ear.
Annoying Things for People With SSD
- Stereo headphones: these are he bane of anyone with single-sided deafness. Fortunately mono splitters can be purchased that can be used to modify stereo headphones and blend all the sounds into one channel. There is nothing worse than listening to your favourite song, only to have the guitar solo omitted because it's playing on the wrong side of your head!
- Surround sound: I think I feel a bit of resentment here because everyone says what an amazing effect this has. To me it just sounds like everything getting louder and quieter.
- Noisy parties: Don't get me wrong, I love parties. What I don't love is the mash of sound blurring into one messy ball of incomprehensible noise. Meeting new people in this kind of environment can be very awkward, and explaining you cant hear them unless they sit on your 'good side' and (depending on the volume of the background noise) talk into your ear- which is often too intimate when first meeting people- can be perplexing.
- Creepy sounds at night: Is that a burglar breaking in? Or is it a neighbour? Or even just the plumbing? Who knows? There is nothing more frustrating and unnerving than unidentified sounds coming from who knows where when you are alone at night (or even when you are not alone and your husband is sleeping and doesn't hear them!).
- Busy junctions on roads: Car sounds everywhere. Too many directions to try to keep track of at once. Crossing the road here is suicide!
- English cars: I am English, but I live in Spain. One of the great things for me personally, when it comes to living in a country where people drive on the right rather than the left, is being able to hear the driver well (I don't drive myself, and the driving seat is on the left-hand side, my 'good' side!). In English cars, the engine noise often drowns out any conversation. If I ever took driving lessons though, it would have to be in an English car so I could hear the instructor well!
- Losing my mobile phone: Getting someone to call it is no good. I usually call it myself and assign my husband to the task of locating the sound.
- People assuming you are being rude/ignoring them: I've been in situations where I am concentrating on something and there is background noise which I have learnt to ignore (If I reacted to every unidentified sound, I'd be jumping all the time). Often this background noise is someone attempting to talk to me on my deaf side. I don't realise. They get mad.
- People shouting/talking very slowly like you're dumb: Come on. This is so patronizing. Just stand on my correct side for goodness sake.
- Reacting to loud noises: If there is a bang, everyone will jump and look in the direction of the sound to see what it was. I will often jump towards the sound and look in the opposite direction. It's better to train yourself not to react at all to avoid the ridicule.
- Films with sound effects and music louder than the voices: No, just... no. This forces me to use subtitles.
- Not being able to swap ears while on the phone: Okay, this is a bit petty, but sometimes my ear gets hot and tired! I often envy other people being able to swap during long phone conversations!
Cool Things for People With SSD
- Being able to sleep in noisy environments: Laying with your good ear on the pillow is enough to muffle out troublesome sounds, and although you can still hear the alarm clock, you can use SSD as a good excuse if you want to sleep in!
- Selective Hearing, literally: One of the ways my brain compensates for constant unidentified sounds is by filtering them out. Anything that doesn't sound like it should be close by (even if it actually is) or important, generally gets ignored- another good excuse for not listening to what you don't want to hear.
- Being able to focus better without distraction: This works for me, at least! It's so much easier to get lost into your own internal reality without so many external distractions. But then I've never had 'normal' hearing to compare..
- Strategic placement for things you don't want to hear: If one of your friends munches popcorn too loud at the cinema, stick 'em on your deaf side! Sitting near the speakers in a pub? To the deaf side!
- It saves on ear plugs: You only need to use one, at concerts and gigs and other situations where earplugs are needed. Although this does get strange looks, admittedly. Also, you can save your hearing by turning your deaf side towards the loud music!
- It forces you to use your brain more: More brain usage = more intelligence! I'm not sure if this can be proven, per se, but I am pretty sure that my hearing issues have forced me to listen harder, think harder and try to keep more on-the-ball than others. I have overridden automatic base reactions such as jumping at noises, which takes a lot of discipline.
- Using an awesome Steampunk style ear trumpet: Ok, this one is pushing it a bit, but how cool would that be?
Do you have SSD, or do you know anyone with the condition?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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