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A Personal Introduction to Single Sided Deafness

Ray Gillies-Jones

Half-deaf or half-hearing?

Are you a glass half-full or a glass half-empty person?

It’s an interesting question because it not only asks you to be honest about your general outlook on life, but it also asks you to resolve a paradox. The glass isn’t full, but it isn’t empty either — and not only that, its fullness and emptiness can be judged to have equal prominence.

Suppose that instead of being an interesting little conversation piece, the half-full / half-empty debate were applied to something else instead.

Like a person.

Like me.

Since the age of four, I’ve been totally deaf in my right ear. My left ear, however, works perfectly.

So, am I half-deaf or half-hearing?

To resolve that question, you need to know more about what it means to have Single Sided Deafness, or SSD as it is often called.

Firstly, understand that unlike a lot of people with hearing difficulties, the standard approach to assisting the deaf are of no use to the vast majority of SSD sufferers because of inner-ear nerve damage. This renders analogue or digital hearing aids and cochlea implants redundant as there is no way that the output of the device can pass down the nerve to the brain. The CROS hearing aid and the excellent BAHA hearing aid, however, can help those with SSD, but neither are particularly common.

Outwardly at least, then, an SSD sufferer will not look any different from Joe Public — so even if you do look for it, there is no little brown device tucked away behind an ear to act as a clue to the hearing problem. This is often a source of frustration, and often embarrassment, to SSDers as they have to try and explain to other people what the condition entails, before the real conversation begins.


So what are the day-to-day problems that SSDers face? What’s it like to have SSD? Here’s an imaginary, but all-too familiar day…

* * * * *

My bedside alarm goes off at 6:30am, but I sleep through it because I happen to be lying with my left ear — my hearing ear — to the pillow. Luckily, my wife Heather, who isn’t deaf, gives me a nudge and makes sure I’m not late for work. We both get up. I let the bath run while I lazily brush my teeth — only when I turn off the taps do I realise that Heather was talking to me from the bedroom. Apparently, she said she fancied the cinema and a pizza tonight, but I didn’t hear her over the sound of the running water. It seems like a good idea, and I’m already looking forward to it.

The drive to work is uneventful, and I arrive on time to see a workmate getting out of his car just as I pull up. We stroll towards the office, and he’s telling me about some programme he watched on the TV last night. I’m not sure of the details, though — he’s walking on my right and the noise from the nearby traffic is all but drowning out the sound of his voice. I smile and nod — and hope he doesn’t notice that I have no idea what he’s on about…

The office is open plan and I get a few cheery "Hello"s as I make my way through the desks. I can only guess as to who has said hello because SSD means that I have no ability to determine the direction a sound is coming from. Everything comes from the left. I turn on my PC and the gentle hum of it’s hard drive is added to the general background noise of the modern office — PCs, printers, fax machines, photocopiers, telephones and Crazy Frog ring tones. Luckily, the air-conditioning unit isn’t on and nobody seems to be using the shredder — yet…

I get a call from a user down in finance — can I help with a report she’s working on? She explains the problem, and I tell her that I’ll pop along and have a look. Putting the receiver down I discover that my boss has patiently been trying to get my attention to tell me he needs me in a meeting — once I have my ear to the phone, I can’t hear anything else…

The delay costs me dear as I’m the last to arrive at the meeting, and have no choice but to sit in the only available chair — at the left-hand end of the table — meaning that my deaf ear is facing the room and subsequently the meeting is really hard work, and my concentration is stretched to the limit…

Lunchtime comes and the meeting breaks up with the MD inviting everyone down to the pub across the street. Crossing the road always require my full attention as the traffic is approaching me on my deaf side. Trying to follow a conversation amongst a group of people and cross the road is impossible, so I don’t even try and I deliberately lag behind the others. Arriving at the pub, I’m noisily greeted with MTV on one plasma screen and horse racing on another. At the bar, I only ask for a Coke, but I’m careful to pay with a note so that it doesn’t matter that I can’t hear the barmaid when she tells me the price…

I try to stay on the periphery of the group in order that I can avoid any small-talk. It means that I miss out on the big joke that everyone laughs at, but it avoids a lot of embarrassment I feel when I try, and fail, to keep up with the conversation. Self-enforced social exclusion is very common amongst SSD sufferers…

Returning to the office, I spend a frustrating afternoon trying to sort out that financial report, and when the clock hits 5.00pm, I’m ready for home. A weary walk back across the car park demonstrates my tiredness as I walk behind not one but two reversing cars — I’m tired and they were coming out of spaces on my right. I make a mental note to be more careful as I drive home…

I can’t use my mobile phone ‘hands-free’ because the earpiece means I won’t be able to hear anything else (like the traffic reports on the car radio), so I miss a phone call from Heather asking me to pick her up from town. Only when I arrive home to an empty house do I check my mobile, find the voice mail, and get back in the car to go and collect her…

We go to the cinema and I enjoy the film. In one scene a plane flies across the screen, from right to left. Heather says that the surround sound effect is great — she can hear the sound ‘moving’ across the cinema. I try and imagine what that must feel like, but to me all the sound comes from the same direction and I just can’t appreciate the effect at all. Stereo is something that only happens to other people…

Afterwards, we dive into a pizza parlour and look hungrily at the menu. Although it’s nice enough, the restaurant is quite busy so there’s cutlery scraping on plates, glasses clinking, chat, laughter, a crying child, and of course MTV on a plasma screen. I can’t hear the waitress, of course, but as I’ve already told Heather what I want, she orders for both of us. The noise means that even holding a conversation across the table is pretty difficult, and the concentration required is quite tiring, but we have a nice evening all the same.

When we return home, it seems that the battery in the smoke alarm is running low, as it is making an intermittent beeping noise. I change the battery, and head straight for bed. Heather tells me that she worries that I can’t hear the smoke alarm when I’m asleep. It worries me too…

What a day!

* * * * *

Does that help you decide if I’m half-deaf or half-hearing?

You might be surprised that I consider myself as neither — I’m just ‘deaf’ — there’s no ‘half’ about it because it has had such an impact on my life, and how I live it.

Perhaps, at least, that will give you an insight into the problems that SSD sufferers have to face every day. In several ways, I’m very fortunate in that I have been SSD since childhood. People who only develop SSD as adults are quite often debilitated by the effects of the condition with the change from full, normal hearing to the twilight world of SSD being a huge psychological shock to them. For example, a recent study has shown that 24% of all adults who develop SSD had to give up work because of the effects of the condition.

You can help

What steps can you take when dealing with an SSD sufferer?

The most important thing is to be on the correct side. If you’re not sure, please ask the SSDer as they will be delighted that you are taking a moment to consider their situation.

Avoid places that are noisy, if you can, when meeting up with people. This is often very difficult to achieve, as all the ‘usual’ places that people meet — bars, clubs, restaurants etc — are normally pretty noisy. However, even in these places, there is often a quieter spot somewhere, such as a table away from the bar, or in a booth perhaps, so have a quick look around. The best option, of course, it to ask the SSDer where they would prefer to sit, and be guided by that.

If you know someone to be SSD, by definition, that means they are hard-of-hearing so all the precautions you might take when speaking to such a person applies equally to someone with SSD:

I hope this short introduction into the subject of SSD has given you some kind of insight into the condition, however small. Perhaps the simplest thing to do is to remind yourself that it isn’t called Single Sided Deafness for nothing and it isn’t called Single Sided Hearing at all.