When I was five years old, my family visited Sandy Beach for the first time. Walking along the foreshore, my mother noticed a small, white seashell buried in the sand. Picking it up, she placed it over my right ear.
“Listen,” she whispered. “Can you hear the ocean?”
I stared up at her blankly. “No,” I replied. “I can’t hear anything in that ear.”
The next few months were a whirlwind of tests as my parents took me to audiologists, to the Royal Children’s Hospital, and (my personal favourite) to the McDonalds inside the Royal Children’s Hospital.
Eventually I was diagnosed with “profound unilateral hearing loss”, which sounds like something you get from thinking too deeply. In fact, it means that I am completely deaf in my right ear, presumably the result of a virus I caught when I was younger.
Never seek medical advice from a child
My diagnosis came as a shock to everybody except me - I’d known about it since kindergarten. In fact, prior to the incident at the beach, I had believed that there were two groups of people in the world: those who could hear in both ears, and those who could only hear in one.
This was confirmed by my friends, who, when I asked, assured me that they were also half-deaf. Looking back, I can see a slight flaw in this survey: I was questioning kindergarteners. Pre-schoolers are hardly a reliable source of information – at the time, three of them were convinced they were dragons.
Still, their answers were enough for me, and I decided not to ask anybody else. After all, if Grognak the Dragon was happy being half-deaf, I could be too.
It’s not all bad
When I was a teenager, my sister would have explosive arguments with my parents. On these nights being half-deaf felt like a superpower (if, instead of resolving conflict, superheroes used their powers to nap). I would simply roll over onto my working ear and blot out the noise completely. This trick also works well with thunderstorms, traffic and home invasion.
Another perk is a game I call “friend-shui”. When I go to dinner, I position my friends around my “good ear”. If I’d like to talk to somebody, I make sure that they sit next to me, while those who have annoyed me are shooed to the end of the table.
I think friend-shui is wonderful – it shows that disability isn’t always a burden. In fact, my ear has taught me skills I would otherwise never have known. Now I know how to run a dictatorship.
But sometimes, it’s annoying
Questions are a big part of having a disability. Every disabled person gets them. Although some people find the questions irritating, I enjoy them. I think that there are three main categories.
1. Curious Questions
These are the most frequent questions. Usually, people ask them when they want more information. “How did it happen?” is very common, as is “How old were you when it happened?” My answer to both of these is, “I was playing with crayons.”
2. Ignorant Questions
My favourite question in this category is, “If I make a sound into that ear, will you be able to hear it?”
I am always a mixture of amused and bewildered when people ask me this question. I become even more disturbed when they begin to make noises at me. I often wonder if they adopt the same attitude towards paraplegics.
I’ve never heard somebody say, “Your legs don’t work? Does that mean I can kick them and you won’t feel anything?” I’m pretty sure that if I did hear somebody say that, the next sound I heard would be the police stuffing them into the back of a van.
3. Weird Questions
I have a shortlist of weird questions, and right now there are two contenders for first place. The first question was posed to me – in earnest – by a friend in 2013. “David,” he mused, “can you only hear half your thoughts?”
Now, normally I would write a joke here, but I honestly don’t think I can say anything funnier. This is a man who thinks that his thoughts enter his head via his ears. I can only imagine my friend listening to The Beatles in astonishment, yelling “I can’t believe I thought all of this up!”
The second question was even weirder. I was talking to a stranger at a party when he asked me, “Why don’t you just have the ear removed? It doesn’t work.” I asked him whether he’d ever considered having his nipples removed. He was shocked.
“But that would look weird!”
I completely understand. I don’t know about you, but when I look at a person who’s missing an ear, the first word I think of isn’t “weird”. It’s “practical”.