Part 1 – Lived with loss – Oticon Opn 1 Hearing Aid Trial

I have hearing loss. Not the sort you get as a result of listening to too much loud music. Well, I have that sort too. But that’s not what I mean.

While my predisposition toward loud music has not helped my situation, I actually posess no hearing whatsoever in my right ear. None. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. I’ve been this way since birth, so I’m totally used to it, but that’s not to say it’s not challenging.

This is not something I talk about often or draw attention to, and it’s not often something that’s ever noticed by others. It’s something I’ve struggled with every day for my entire life, and naturally it’s given me a keen interest in the assistive hearing technologies landscape.

But how bad is it, really?

Group conversations are virtually insurmountable for me, and many of the small every-day exchanges of words you might take for granted literally fall on deaf ears. Sure, I’ll nod and smile, or make an effort to respond, but I wont really have understood what you said. And often that doesn’t really matter. Small talk is seldom relevant or enriching. But many day to day social interactions are- if someone greets me on the street I wont have a clue what they’ve said, when I buy something I’ll rarely know the price I’m paying, and when I’m asked for a bag I’ll often rely on a mental map of the questions a checkout clerk might ask and lots of guesswork to answer the right way. I have to be prepared and attentive to really survive an exchanging of words. It’s frustrating!

Directional hearing is also a truly baffling concept to me. It’s not that I can’t place a sound in an environment, it’s just that I can’t do it from hearing alone. A new, unrecognised sound will, for me, appear to be disembodied and have no real origin until I look around and discover the source. Once I know where a sound is coming from my brain subconsciously stores that information, and the disembodied source becomes attached to the world around me and I understand- I imagine- just as well as you might the direction it’s coming from. Just in a very different way.

I use my eyes in traffic. My ears are unreliable. Once someone said “Excuse me” several times before I figured out they were right behind me and, embaressed, moved aside. All of these little things affect my life on a daily basis- individually they are small inconveniences but together they add up to shape my interactions and mould how I experience the world.

This is compounded by my left ear. While I have hearing, it’s dulled, muted and far from exceptional. Even when the origin of a sound isn’t relevant I need to turn up the TV, YouTube, or the person I’m speaking to. My house phone volume doesn’t go quite loud enough for me to hold a conversation without a conscious listening effort. Headphones don’t always sound right to me. I never turn my phone ringtone on because it has to be a deafening crescendo for me to notice it.

I was tested some – many – years ago and prescribed a basic Oticon aid on the NHS. I still have it, in its box somewhere and it no-doubt still functions as it did for the few times I could tolerate wearing it. Living with hearing loss is one thing, living with a physical testament, an advertisement of it behind my ear is quite another. Nobody really wants to wear an aid, but sometimes it’s simply necessary to play a remotely normal part in social interactions.

Vain though that may sound, looks were by far the least of my problems with the aid. Making up for the lack of hearing in one side by attempting to amplify the other has many disadvantages, and I don’t think there’s an easy way to overcome that. My brain isn’t used to noise, and is terrible at picking out conversations from the amplified soundscape of a room. Sometimes I’ll hear an unexpected word and be totally unable to recognise it until either some moments later, or after some repetition. The fact is that the aid was inconvinient, uncomfortable and – if anything – made things worse, so I forgot about it. Tucked it into a box. And went on with life pretending to hear.

Fast forward many, many years and I start to see hearing technology change and evolve. Rechargable batteries become more and more commonplace, phone connectivity becomes a thing, and – the laughably absurd thing that prompted me to try an Oticon aid this time – things like If This Then That integration pop out of nowhere to turn an assistive technology into something that offers benefits, even advantages, to redress the balance. Aids are starting to look and feel cool and Wearable Tech is an exploding industry that’s making the idea of adorning yourself with smart gadgets more mainstream.

After seeing the news of IFTTT integration I reached out to Oticon on social media and explained my situation. Very much to their credit they were simply lovely. They arranged me a visit with a local hearing specialist, who was also similarly personable and super knowledgeable (perhaps more on that later), and set up a trial of their Oticon Opn-1 aid. This aid is smaller, smarter and cooler than the one I was prescribed many years ago- but is it meaningfully different to me? And will it be my panacea of communication? I don’t know yet, but stay tuned as I find out.