My Unilateral World; Hearing with One Ear

By Lisa Cable

I was born with a unilateral, profound hearing loss. While the specific cause of my hearing loss has never been determined, it is clear that it’s genetic. My mother’s brother, mother & grandmother were all the same as me.

When I was born, newborn screening didn’t yet exist. However, because unilateral hearing loss ran in the family, my mother knew what tell-tale signs to look for, such as one-sided head-turning towards sounds. As I got a little bit older, she became aware that I might have inherited this trait. Taking me for audiological testing, she was able to have the professionals confirm what she suspected was in fact true.

Back in the 70’s, there was little that was done in the way of early intervention or listening equipment for children with a unilateral hearing loss. But, given that my mother had grown up with her mother and brother, she was familiar with ways to help me.

In the years before I entered school, my mother ensured that I was having my hearing regularly tested, to monitor the ear that I was using to listen with. She also had my speech development monitored and worked hard to expose me to lots of spoken language.

Once I was in school, my mother would always meet with my teachers before school started to ensure that I was setup to succeed in the classroom. Some of the things she discussed were where I should sit to best hear the teacher, ways for the teacher to optimise communication with me, and problem solving tips for when I struggled to hear in a certain environment or situation.

As an adult, I usually forget about my hearing loss. It’s part of who I am, and I’ve never known any different. In fact, I sometimes even forget which ear I can hear out of and which one I can’t. The two hardest things for me to deal with are localization of sound and background noise.

Localization of sound means figuring out where a sound or voice is coming from. A perfect example of this happened recently when I was in Toys’R’Us with my family. There was a special event going on so it was really noisy. I was in an aisle and could hear someone calling my name. But it took me looking around frantically for about 30 seconds before I saw my aunt standing about 6 feet in front of me. With all the noise echoing around the store I just couldn’t figure out where the voice was coming from. While it can be a bit frustrating at times, it certainly is not at all detrimental to my quality of life!

The other issue is background noise. Busy social events or noisy parties are the worst. If someone is standing in front of me or on the side I can’t hear from, and attempting to talk to me I just can’t hear them. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned just to be honest and say “I can’t hear you, would you mind moving over here so that I can?”. Or if it’s easy enough, I just position myself to hear better. People are never upset and would prefer that I can hear them, rather than me pretending to hear and having a very stilted conversation.

Very recently, I went for some audiological testing. As an adult, I have only had my hearing tested once in my 20’s. As I now approach 40, I’ve felt that I am struggling more to hear – especially with background noise and situations where people are on the side of my deaf ear. With my kids, I find I’m often telling them I can’t hear them because they’re yelling at me from another room or walking away as they talk to me. There’s also a lot of extra noise when they have friends over and my frustration levels are getting high. Interestingly, the results of these recent tests show no changes in either of my ears, but I am looking at trying out some hearing equipment to alleviate some of the struggles that I’m having.

Because there has never been any stimulation of the auditory nerve in my deaf ear, trying to put a hearing aid on it now just won’t work. So I am looking at trying out the Phonak Cros II, an amplification device for people with unilateral hearing. On my deaf ear, I will wear a device that simply acts as a microphone to collect sound from that side. This will then transmit those sounds to a hearing aid that I will wear in my hearing ear. I’m told it won’t help with localization of sound, but will allow me to hear speech and sounds that I would normally miss on my deaf side. I’m sure it will be an adjustment but I will let you all know how it goes!

Despite my recent struggles, there are upsides to a unilateral hearing loss. The best is that I sleep amazingly well. When I go to bed, I sleep on my hearing ear; it is instantly quiet and I’m not bothered by any noise around me. It’s fantastic!

I was very lucky growing up to have a mother that recognized early on the importance of monitoring and intervention in regards to my speech and listening. Also, my parents never framed my hearing loss as a negative thing, it was just part of who I am, in the same way as my uncle and my grandmother. These wonderful examples have served me well as I am now a parent to two beautiful children: my son, Ryder, who has natural hearing and my daughter, Lily, who is bilaterally profoundly deaf. Lily loves that she has a mom with hearing loss, and I love that both my kids are unique and special in their own way…just like me. 🙂

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