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!
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Single-sided hearing is best because...
Bill on 09/16/2015

When its noisy at work I can cover my hearing ear and still type with one hand. Occasionally I do tell people at work that I am lucky to be half deaf. There are days when I don't know how people who don't have any deafness can get any work done.

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...
Steve on 04/27/2015

You can keep up with conversations much better and you don't feel left out. You don't have to constantly position yourself to hear better and plan your every move based on trying to hear others.

[email protected] 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: 04/28/2015, JoHarrington
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Sherry Lopez on 04/29/2017

Having normal hearing, and waking up ssd at 25, was overwhelming at first. It was a medical issue that zapped my hearing and sight on one side.I noticed vision loss, before I realized deafness. Adjusting to ssd was more frustrating, than the vision loss. I became timid and frightened easily. The full effects of ssd was an adventure in lifes lessons to say the least . Once I learned to accept it, it became easier to adapt and retrained my thought process. I quickly found myself being able to read lips. I learned situations to avoid, and what to do in unavoidable situations (safety). After 15 years of ssd, I was gifted my first set of hearing aids, in which I would I never of been able to afford. I cried just being able to hear my children play and through the house and hear their foot steps, then to hear the birds sing, and the leaves rustle as I walked in the yard. All great sounds I missed so much. But soon it all became overwhelming. The adjustment back to hearing world I thought I so dearly missed, was causing me anxiety. I enjoy wearing them, and I enjoying not wearing them. I quickly learned having ssd I didn't fit into the deaf community, or the hearing community. Which put me in a world of my own. The people closest to me don't make it an issue. They just know to sit across or to the left of me. I am more aware of my surroundings. Particularly for safety reasons, which is huge now days. If someone approaches and tries to speak to me, Ishuffle myself around to hear them. A time or twenty I have been known to say "can you repeat that in my other good ear" Many people think they need to shout 4 inches from your face, they assume your deaf and dumb, or they talk so dang slow they forget what they were saying. So I just try to avoid the annoyance of explaining it to strangers. I've been given an opportunity, an ability to tune into hearing every little annoying sound, or tune out the world, all depending on what I chose to do. That is best thing about ssd.

JoHarrington on 04/28/2015

Jo high-fives Bill

Bill on 04/28/2015

Bill high-fives Jo

JoHarrington on 04/28/2015

Bill speaks for me too in so much of this. I too have learned that those who don't want to include me don't deserve me attempting to include myself. They're really not worth it.

The exception being friends who ordinarily know damn well what's going on here, but are too tired/drunk/forgetful to have it registered at that moment in time. Then I just disappear into my own world, or grin at them until they remember. Getting control of the remote and pausing the TV every time they attempt to speak over it soon alerts them to their behavior.

Tom, you have hit the nail on the head there. The quiet ones on the outskirts are usually the more interesting people anyway. I hope you find your confidence to go with that wonderful compassion. It'll open up a lot of social situations for you. Then there's always online communities, where typing all responses means no need to hear a thing. You sound to me like a beautiful person and folk deserve to hear more from you.

Yes, I do get a lot of back-ache and neck cramps from turning around. But then I sit ordinarily like someone with no sense of decorum or posture, so I only have myself to blame. ;)

Tom on 04/26/2015

Thanks Bill, I notice that in some situations I am carrying the conversation and in others it is just to hard for me to keep up with. I know that my hearing loss in one ear has changed my personality and it has made me a completely different person in some situations. I think that this has made me think differently about life and has made realize not to judge others so harshly. I have found myself being more of an outkast talking to people that I probably wouldn't have met if I had not had hearing loss. I find myself trying to talk to people who are not part of a big group of people and don't have much friends because I know that I can have a conversation with them with no other voices and I know what it's like to be them. Having a hearing loss has made me realize what it's like to be left out so I find myself relating to other people who don't have many friends because of other issues other than hearing loss. I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to feel what it's like to be left out. This has made me stronger and has made me be a person that I am proud of. I hope that others will learn to respect everyone no matter what because it is impossible to know what people are going through.

Bill on 04/25/2015

You're welcome Tom. I think that your friends will be accommodating. Be patient. Remember they really don't know what we experience. They will probably need reminding from time-to-time.

I think that the most difficult thing for non-deaf people to comprehend is that we swing back and forth between the deaf world and the hearing world. They barely notice a little bit of background noise. It puts us in the deaf world. At times we can hear just as well as they do. From their experience it is incomprehensible that that changes. I found that after telling my friends on multiple occasions that I was having difficulty hearing, they began to recognize the noise environments that cause that to happen. Its important to let them know that because we do not have stereo hearing we cannot focus on sounds and block out background noise.

Don't be embarrassed, there is nothing wrong with you. We just hear in a different way than others do.

Tom on 04/25/2015

Thanks for the advice Bill, I really appreciate it and I will educate my friends about what I am dealing with.

Bill on 04/24/2015

I don't have a problem being SSD. I let people know that I'm deaf in my left ear. It doesn't take a lot to accommodate me. If they can't make the effort, why should I be embarrassed? They are obviously shallow people whom I wouldn't want to associate with anyway. I am a far better and interesting person than they are.

Most people are understanding. You need to make the effort to educate them. They cannot be expected to just know what we experience. Give them a chance. I find that people are often very interested.

I know its difficult when you are younger without the knowledge of how to deal with being half deaf. From experience, I think most of us learn how to deal with it very well. Its something to be proud of.

frankbeswick on 04/24/2015

Hopefully you will be cured! But it is always good to let people know about your problem. When I was suffering some mild hearing loss [now cured] some years ago I was open with my school students about it, and explained that sometimes I might not hear them as well as I could. I found that almost every student was co-operative and sympathetic, as most people will be with you.

Tom on 04/24/2015

Being SSD sucks. Missing out on numerous conversations can have a serious impact on relationships and making friends. People assume you're just quiet and boring. Having to constantly position yourself to hear better is very tiring. If I am ever stuck in a position where I feel like I can't contribute to the conversation, I get really embarassed. This has made me shy away from going to parties or out with friends. I know it doesn't seem that tough to deal with, but the reality is that it has made my life very hard.

I used to get anxiety in the classroom because I couldn't hear my self breathe and I would get paranoid about if people thought I would breath loud or if they could hear my stomach growl which it constantly would throughout every class. I know that seems funny but it really did impact my school work. I also have problems with my spine and I walk strangely because of this. I think that this is related to how I sat in the classroom because of having to position my body to hear better. Or could it be related to a problem with my vestibular system? If anyone else has dealt with these issues let me know.

Overall being deaf in one ear has made me very depressed at times but I know that someday I will eventually be able to hear in both ears thanks to advances in technology.

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