Talking to Somebody Who is Deaf in One Ear

by JoHarrington

Unilateral hearing affects a significant percentage of the population. How would you welcome a client or guest with this kind of deafness?

How would you speak to someone partially deaf? This is the next question considered by anyone who has just learned that someone is deaf in one ear.

It's not a well publicized sphere; and it encompasses a whole different set of issues from either the fully hearing or the fully deaf.

I've been profoundly deaf in my right ear since childhood. This article will explain what is it like to be deaf in one ear; and what you should factor in, when communicating with those with SSD.

How Does the World Sound to Someone with Unilateral Hearing?

Let me walk you through a worst case scenario. Though fictitious, it contains elements with which I am more than familiar!


I'm out in the street, so it's a wonder that I heard my name being called at all. But there's a lull in the traffic and I'm away from the main pedestrian hubs.

The urgency in the tone alerts me to the fact that this probably isn't the first time that she's called me. There's psychological pressure on me to find her fast. I don't want to appear impolite.

Single-sided deafness means that I have no direction of sound, but I do have eyes. I quickly scan the road ahead of me to no avail. Then I turn around, looking until I spot the source. It's my friend and she's waving from the doorstep of her house. "Finally, you deaf cow! Come and have a cuppa. I've got news!"

I wander across the road, taking care to look for traffic. I can hear vehicles, but have no way of knowing if they're approaching or moving away. The only way to gauge their distance is to see them.

Once through the front door, I'm engulfed in a cacophony of noise. There's no depth to it, just a flat wall of sound seeming all to derive from my left side. (I'm deaf in my right ear.) The television is on. A soap opera blares out a constant stream of words, which clash and merge with those spoken by the other two people in the room.

My friend has possibly said something. I don't know. She's gestured towards the settee and that subconscious bit of body language has provided me with a clue. I'm being invited to sit down, while she disappears into the kitchen. This is a British home. She will be making a cup of tea to demonstrate how welcome I am in her home.

I feel disorientated, because it's hard to think with that white noise distracting me. My instinct is to switch the television off and yell at everyone to shut up. But etiquette demands the opposite reaction.

I'm to be on red alert. I'm to watch every person present, in case their attention or moving lips indicates that they have spoken. Unfortunately, that focus often prompts people into conversation. I'm now lip-reading and watching their non-verbal communication.

All the time, the noise feels like something physical to be warded away. It comes and goes. Just one source of sound is fine. I can hear it. As soon as there are two, it's like I've been slapped. The television and conversation over the top is the most common situation in which I have to suffer this.

Her husband has a beard and mustache. I cannot see his lips moving, though his gaze and the laughter of his teenage son tell me that I'm ignoring him. I feel like a stuck record, repeating this every time I'm here, but out it comes again, "I'm sorry. I'm deaf in one ear. What did you say?"

Whatever the response was, it must have been funny. It was probably a light-hearted joke about deafness. People are full of those. It breaks the tension, which so many seem to feel at the prospect of silence. He reaches forward for the remote control and I catch his broad smile. He wants to be helpful. He switches on the subtitles, so I can watch the television too.

And the noise goes on. Too much of it and I feel silently dizzy. I'm getting a headache from having to concentrate so hard. I start sentences with an apology, because I missed the thread of the conversation. It's not just the volume. It's not just the sound. It's the sheer scale of it all, like an assault, when they're all trying to be so welcoming.

Unilateral Hearing Loss on Wikipedia

Unilateral hearing loss or single-sided deafness is a type of hearing impairment where there is normal hearing in one ear and impaired hearing in the other ear.

Books about how the World is for the Hearing Impaired

Buy these true stories to understand the assaults on self-esteem that are commonplace for the deaf in a hearing world.

How the Ear Works

This YouTube video describes precisely how we hear. In my case, the cochlea is broken, so cannot pass the information into my brain.

Making Life Easier for Those with Single-Sided Deafness

It's not volume that you need to watch, it's multiple sources of sound.

Being profoundly deaf in one ear is a totally different circumstance to total deafness, or even other types of partial hearing impairment.

It is stereo hearing that provides depth and direction to sound. Both of your ears will pick up the audio and then your brain will triangulate the location.

The slight variances in volume will position the source closer or further away. In this way, they work together to allow background noise to stay in the background, or your attention to lift one sound from the mass of it. Even someone with reduced hearing in one ear will be able to deduce audio information in the same way.

Those with completely unilateral hearing do not have this ability.  For us, every sound is in the same place, indivisible from the rest.

If my fictitious friend had been aware, in my opening worst case scenario, then it could have played out much differently. Firstly she would have waited until there was no background noise before calling my name. She would have included her location in the shout. "Jo! Turn around, I'm behind you!" 

No initial anxiety then. I'm not only certain that I heard first time (achievement for the win!), but she's told me from the outset that she's got my back. She knows me and she is welcoming me.

Once inside her home, the television would have been removed from the equation. It could have been switched off and muted, but that isn't really fair on those who were watching it. Better still would have been to invite me into the kitchen with her. With the door closed, we have a quiet place.

People with single-sided deafness can hear perfectly well, if there are no competing sounds. I have known a few individuals for years, without them ever learning that I am deaf in one ear. The reason is that I've only ever spoken to them, one on one, in a relaxed, quiet environment.

Finally, if we were to stay in the lounge, with the television off, then my deaf aware hostess could monitor the conversation. Everyone taking turns to talk is just fine. But if over-excitement or enthusiasm means that people start speaking over the top of each other, then my friend would intercede. "One at a time, you lot. Jo's partially deaf."  A smile, a little wink, all is well in the world again.

Baking Aids to Say I Love You in ASL

Cookie cutters, chocolate moulds and mugs spell out 'I love you' in American Sign Language.

Which is best - stereo or single-sided hearing?

Anything you can do, I can do better! But let's argue this one out for once and for all!

Single-sided hearing is best because...
JoHarrington on 01/26/2012

Our acronym is also a command - Ssh!

JoHarrington on 01/26/2012

I have no idea what stereo hearing actually sounds like!

JoHarrington on 01/26/2012

Paying so much attention to non-verbal communication means I catch what you wanted to say, rather than what you think you should say.

JoHarrington on 01/26/2012

I know the value of silence.

JoHarrington on 01/26/2012

I have an excuse not to have to listen to drunk people babbling on.

JoHarrington on 01/26/2012

I can sleep through pneumatic drills going off outside my bedroom window.

Stereo hearing is best because... on 10/19/2012

I wouldn't call it "better", but single-sided deafness does come in handy when the need arises to block out noises when trying to sleep... just roll over onto the "good side"!

Kim on 10/19/2012

I taught kindergarten and pre-k talk about being overwhelmed sometimes! I told my angels I only had one ear that worked so all of their sounds would not fit in the hole! I was surprised at how well that worked!

mae on 07/31/2012

I wish I knew what this was like :(

Sam on 01/29/2012

... you can hear from which direction the car is coming that is about to run you over ;-)

Othercat on 01/28/2012

I like to hear depth and i like to know where sounds are coming from. I think it would be scary otherwise.

Ember on 01/26/2012

Stereo hearing can experience this piece of magic.

Single-Sided Deaf Awareness Pins

I've been deaf in one ear since I was nine years old. The most frustrating thing about that is other people. Grab an Angry Deaf badge to defend against the audists in your life.


I would naturally like to hear from anyone who has anything to say on this issue.  Please just chat away below in the usual way.

But I would especially welcome comments from people who either are deaf in one ear, or else know somebody who is.

Have you any insights and tips on how people could be more aware of the issues surrounding unilateral hearing?  How do you cope in noisy situations?  How do you make your one-sided deaf friend feel welcome in your company? 

More of my Articles About Deafness

Alarms in your house warn of anything from a fire to a burglary. But what if the only person there is hearing impaired?
Unilateral hearing can result in some excruciatingly awkward social situations. A heart-breaking search query has led to this article.
The Age of the Internet has meant many things to many people, but for those with a hearing impairment it's been fantastic! Now we get a conversation without the hassle!
They are amongst some of the biggest names in entertainment, politics or the news, and these celebrities are deaf in one ear. Find out who they are and how it happened.
Updated: on 07/11/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 01/03/2014

Frank - This explains why my teachers never had a clue how to deal with my deafness either! Mind you, that worked out fine, because all they wanted was silence in the classroom so that they could teach. That indirectly created a good place in which I could learn.

However, I have encountered modern teaching practices, which have more focus on group discussions or pairing up with a partner to work on some project. That must be a nightmare for SSD kids in the classroom.

JoHarrington on 01/03/2014

Thank you, Bill. You're certainly talking for me regarding the deafness being just deafness. It's not who we are. It's just a feature. I have NO idea what stereo hearing sounds like, so I'm missing absolutely nothing.

I think that if I was offered the chance to hear in my right ear again, I'd decline. I know that sounds like bravado, but I'm not sure that I'd want to give up the benefits of SSD for the vague boons of stereo. Perhaps if I could try it for an hour, just to find out what everyone has been going on about all this time, I might do it for the experience. But I really have no hankering to live like that forever.

Lori and Bill, I'd love for you both to join Wizzley and write about your hearing related experiences here too.

JoHarrington on 01/03/2014

You are very, very welcome, Lori. You are in precisely the situation for which this article was written. Hopefully you can initiate some things in your home, which will become habit and cover those times when everyone forgets that you're deaf. They will. I recently discovered that my own mother had no idea how I actually heard the world, while my friend of 20 years admitted that he forgets about my deafness more often than I imagine. It's a hidden thing, so there are no visual clues for people to remind them. And we compensate so very well, that there's not always that side of things to prompt them either.

Good luck with it all. This isn't the end of things. In fact, we get the better deal. I've just woken from a lovely sleep to discover that my hearing friends were all disturbed earlier by a loud beeping from outside!

frankbeswick on 01/01/2014

This was an extremely useful article because, as one who has taught in classrooms I have encountered single ear deafness but have never had any training in it. This article was the training that I should have had.

Bill on 12/31/2013

Lori I'm sorry you have lost hearing in one ear. It must be very difficult to loose. Jo has provided by far the best information about Single Sided Deafness that I have seen. Please understand though that those of us who have been deaf all our lives or a very long time have a different view of it. Its not something that we are going through, it is part of who we are. Sorry everyone, once again I am speaking for more than just myself.

I'm proud of being a Single Sided Deaf person. I have always been deaf in one ear. If there was suddenly a way of providing hearing to my deaf ear, I would have to seriously consider whether or not I wanted it.

The information that Jo has provided would educate someone who is not deaf as to how someone who is deaf in one ear hears sounds. It also educates us single sided deaf people as to how people who are not deaf hear sounds. Lori you are in a unique position to know both sides.

Lori on 12/31/2013

Thank you so much for posting this. I am newly diagnosed withSSNHL (as of 121/13). I gave this article to my husband to read so he has a better understanding if what I'm going through.

JoHarrington on 12/17/2013

Wow! Go you! And yes, thank you very much for doing this for us. You certainly do speak for me too.

*hi-fives you over the internet* Thanks.

Bill on 12/17/2013

Hi Jo. Recently I dropped my mp3 player again and consequently had to buy a new one. Other than Apple, I do not believe that there is any accommodation for us. I decided that if I am buying a product that does not meet my needs I am going to let the manufacturer know about it. My apologies if I offended anyone for speaking for all of us., but left the following on Sansa's Customer Support website:

I am a Single Sided Deaf (SSD) person. I am deaf in my left hear. Unfortunately, I have a choice of hearing either right or left channel but not both when wearing ear buds.

I am a long distance runner and I always use a Sansa Clip when I run. It would be great if I could configure it to output mono so that I could hear all of the music on my mp3's.

I frequent a couple SSD web sites. Trying to listen to stereo wearing ear buds is an irritation to all of us. I know that Apple supports mono output. I prefer your product and I would really appreciate it if you would consider this enhancement to your product.

I got a prompt response saying that they understood my issue and forwarded my feedback to their Product Developement team.

JoHarrington on 11/20/2013

Thank you very much for being mindful of the environment around your friend. People like you are true friends and that makes you great to be around.

cazort on 11/20/2013

I think this is a really great page to draw awareness to the issues faced by people who are mostly or fully deaf in one ear.

One of my close friends also only has hearing in one ear, and she's described to me the same phenomena you talk about here--the inability to locate the source of a sound, and the problem hearing anything at all when in a loud environment, like one filled with loud chatter from a TV or other people.

I do my best to be mindful of her situation, such as by avoiding recommending or choosing a restaurant or cafe that has a loud atmosphere if she is going to be present, and also by being a bit more restrained about talking when others are speaking so as to avoid creating a confusing jumble of sound. I think not talking when others are talking is a good habit anyway, so I sometimes appreciate the direction she pushes me in! And, even though I have normal hearing, sometimes I find it anxiety-producing when there is loud chatter and background noise for my own reasons, so I think our preferences end up meshing well.

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