22 August 2021

Some comments on my disability of possible interest

I have a disability. (Well, several, perhaps, if you include the sorts of mental and emotional dysfunctions that many people are moderately impaired by; this is a physical disability, and not age-related). Fortunately, it's not extreme nor has it prevented me from living a rewarding and fulfilling life nor caused me to have to make or seek out major accommodations to deal with it. But it does cause me some trouble, and, as it is sometimes a little subtle, it gets mistaken for grumpiness, anti-social attitude, etc., which I more or less just embrace and let people think that of me.

I am deaf in one ear. Have been since a very serious case of mumps at age 4. Left me with complete nerve deafness on the left. Fortunately, my right ear hearing was unaffected and at 68 remains pretty good. I am an amateur pianist and baroque chamber musician, and music is my No. 1 passion among the arts and pastimes. I actually thought for a brief moment early in my adult life I could even make it a profession, but I realized quickly I have nowhere near the talent or physical capacity for that. So it's been a hobby, listening, and, as life progressed, more and more, playing. So my disability has been a real handicap. But that's not where it really affects me a lot. I cope with hearing music two-dimensionally. If you have "normal" hearing you can't really appreciate this: I cannot easily tell where sound is coming from, and it's quite difficult for me to pick out the different layers of sound in a musical texture or auditory environment. A bird call across the valley? To me, I can tell that it is distant. If I move my head I can tell, to within about 90°, what direction it's coming from. But I can't "place it" in space the way people with normal hearing can. When people talk about "stereo" sound or how great a stereo sound system is, I can hear the fidelity, but not the "stereo." I understand intellectually what it means, but I can't hear it. Everything is "mono." I can identify a clarinet solo in an orchestral texture by its timbre, its dynamic, its tone color, its harmonic function, etc., but not, or not easily, by its spatial relationship to other sounds. This is a definite lack, but one I've learned to compensate for to some degree.

About five years ago, after mulling it over for several years, I had a BAHA (bone-anchored hearing assistance) abutment implanted in my skull, and got a BAHA device to use with it. This picks up sound on the deaf side, and transmits it through the bones of the skull, where I can hear it, at about 50% content (not the same as volume, which is adjustable but not without side-effects), in my "good" ear. This does work, and some people love it. Mine sits in a drawer and the abutment is just a hook to catch my hairbrush once in a while. I may eventually even have it removed, since it makes MRIs of the head impossible. Why? Because it doesn't do what I thought it would, and the only real reason I wanted it. In ambient noise situations, like a room full of people talking, or, especially, a room where people are eating, listening to music, and talking (i.e., a restaurant, or, the worst, a bar or nightclub), it does nothing for me. I still can't hear anything of what people are saying to me, unless I look right at them and listen to them with my good ear. And if the music is loud, I have to literally draw in close, face my ear towards them, and pay close attention. When in these situations, especially the loud music situation, I strain to hear what people are saying (I hear the music fine), but I just can't. After a while it becomes exhausting, and I give up. And sit there. I become the deaf old man. I try to guess or infer from the 40% or so of the words I can make out what they are saying, but it's tiring. Others want to stay for the full 2½ hour set, but I'm ready to go after an hour. I actually become quite physically uncomfortable in such settings. So, mostly, I just don't go. Hence the curmudgeon, grump, anti-social impression.

Actually, I do go. Sometimes. Just to be sociable; so as not to deprive friends and my husband of something he loves to do… sometimes it's easier to just go and put up with it. I do enjoy the music enough so that overall I'm often (admittedly, not always), glad I went.

Do I feel sorry for myself? No, not really. As disabilities go, this one is minor, and I'm lucky not to have other physical or health conditions that are much worse. I'm only writing this to make people aware. Other people are not always grumpy or moody or just difficult. Sometimes it's because they can't hear and it makes them uncomfortable. Hearing difficulty is much more common than a lot of people, especially younger adults, realize or take into account. Something to be aware of. 

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