Award-winning video director (and Complex staffer) Rik Cordero faces the reality of audio technology head on.
As a filmmaker, Derrick Coleman's Duracell commercial is a powerful piece of work that combines the best elements of storytelling - gritty, in-your-face action and emotional inner monologue. The "Trust Your Power" advert has been racking up tremendous views since its premiere last Friday and it doesn't seem to be slowing down. Coleman, the Seattle Seahawks fullback who is the first legally deaf player to play in the NFL, has become the poster boy for overcoming adversity. The best line in the spot—“But I've been deaf since I was 3, so I didn't listen”—is played over a solemn silhouette of Coleman, head down and dejected which instantly jump cuts to a helmet-clad Coleman raising his head in a dramatic recreation of his NFL tryout. This scene alone could make the most hardened sports critic’s eyes water. It's an incredible spot no doubt, but for me, it hit home on a personal level.
I have a condition called Unilateral Hearing Loss, otherwise known as Single-Sided Deafness or SSD for short. I was born without any hearing ability in my left ear (91 decibels or greater is what’s considered non-functioning). My right ear, however, works perfectly. Coleman's condition is far more impaired than mine since he was only able to hear tones and sounds until the age of 3. Then, slowly, it began to fade away. Unlike most people with hearing impairments, the standard approach to assisting the deaf are of no use to SSD sufferers because of nerve damage. This makes the use of digital hearing aids and cochlea implants redundant because the information cannot pass from the nerve to the brain. Most kids who are diagnosed with SSD are often told to adapt. But without a guide or a truly amazing audiologist, life with SSD is often a hidden struggle where isolation is a common reflex.
You can't pass someone on the street and instantly recognize that they have SSD. I'm fortunate that I've had SSD since childhood as those who get it later in life have trouble adjusting. A recent study shows that 24 percent of adults who develop SSD have given up their jobs because of the psychological impact on their lives.
I wanted a wearable hearing device with a built in microphone that would allow me to hear clear voices and sound through a single earphone. My search revealed a lot of tacky hardware with the dreaded “As Seen On TV” stamp of approval. I realized the market for this technology was severely limited especially when faced with options that looked like this.
My earliest memory of my SSD was of the audiologist telling my mother that I would be okay because my right ear was perfectly normal. I imagined that my right ear had a superhuman power that would compensate for the useless one. When I was 10, a few kids on the bus were playing a game where they would test the limits of their hearing by placing the speaker of a mini casio keyboard right against their ear until the pain was unbearable. I won the game without flinching. I felt proud of my hidden power but the unsettling expressions of my classmates made me think twice. Maybe my left ear was more of a curse than a gift? Outwardly, I looked like everyone else, but inside, I felt half-deaf or half-hearing depending on how my day went.
Noisy environments such as bars, clubs, and restaurants are places where I feel the most vulnerable. Depending on where I sit, those on my left side would pretty much be ignored. I often nod in agreement when people address me and hope my friends don't notice I have no idea what they are talking about. Most people with SSD are afraid of offending people by not hearing what they said. Sometimes my SSD worked to my advantage. For example, my roommates in college often held parties in our dorm room and if I had to get some sleep I'd simply lay my body on the right side to block them out. It's a technique I still use today to mute unruly sounds like sirens or early morning garbage trucks.
As I hit my 30's and the responsibilities of growing a family and maintaining a career became priority, I became more in tune with my health and body. My wife Nancy was one of the first people I shared my secret with and my creative confidence wouldn’t have developed without her support and inspiration. When my daughter was born I looked into the sky and thanked God when the doctor said she had perfect hearing in both ears. I have to make sure I can hang on to every word she says for as long as possible.
So I went for a hearing test for the first time since I was a child. I sat in the booth and had flashbacks of that uncertainty I felt so many years ago. What if I raised my left hand when I could sense but not “hear” the sounds in my left ear? Could I trick her into thinking I was normal? Those instincts were almost exactly the same. Then she showed me the results: "You have profound hearing loss in your left ear but your right ear is perfectly normal." I tried my hardest to hide my eyes but I broke down sobbing. Whatever repressed emotions I had about my hearing suddenly came flooding out. Twenty-five years later and I'm being told the same thing? "I'm not fine! Can't you see how much harder I have to work just to seem normal?!" I thought. I asked about the number of SSD patients she's dealt with. She said only a handful. I asked about hearing aid solutions and she said it would cost almost $5,000 dollars, which my current health insurance doesn’t cover. A test trial was not an option and she couldn’t guarantee that it would improve my quality of life. I was aggravated. Where did this misconception that hearing loss in one ear does not constitute a disability?
I decided to do some investigating because surely, after all these years, the technology for SSD has improved. And it has, but with various degrees of effectiveness. The most interesting of the bunch is the SoundBite, the first non-surgical and removable hearing aid technology which uses bone conduction to transmit sounds to the good ear via the teeth. Basically a microphone sits in the bad ear and the sound that it receives is sent wirelessly into the mouth which creates tiny vibrations through the jaw bone that the good ear interprets as sound. So while you aren't really "hearing" out of the bad ear, it does create the perception of hearing which is better than nothing.
Eyeglasses aren’t just made to improve vision, they are also seen as a fashion accessory. That same kind of aesthetic thinking needs to be applied to hearing technologies. The chips are getting smaller, the technology is already here.
I wanted another option, something that didn’t require a high financial commitment so I did an online search for Personal Amplifiers. I wanted a wearable hearing device with a built in microphone that would allow me to hear clear voices and sound through a single earphone. My search revealed a lot of tacky hardware with the dreaded “As Seen On TV” stamp of approval. I realized the market for this technology was severely limited especially when faced with options that looked like this.
The ME-300 D arrived in very impressive packaging. None of that cheap, found-in-the-electronics aisle of CVS look at all. It truly looks like a serious piece of hardware made for people who care about tech and design equally. I read the tagline on the front of the box: “Communication + Confidence - make the world more beautiful.”I was almost ready to give up when I found a device that peaked my interest. The Merry ME-300 D, a stylish 1-inch square that resembles the iPod Shuffle. The specs include 40 decibels of amplification with adaptive noise reduction, feedback cancellation, and a rechargeable Li-ion battery that provides up to 20 hours of use. With a retail price of $199.00, it hit the sweet spot of what I’d be willing to spend to experiment.
Looks aside, I was eager to put this thing into real world use and right away I noticed a difference. While waiting for my train from New Jersey into Manhattan, I could hear the conversations of construction workers across the tracks. The sound of nails being hammered had a very distinct sound that made me feel like I was watching a movie. I think we’ve grown accustomed to how sound effects are filtered and mixed in movie theaters and that’s exactly what it felt like. However, the sound became too intense when the train pulled into the stop. I pressed the listening mode button and went into Quiet mode, which is ideal for minimizing ambient noises from the environment like street traffic. While sitting in the passenger seat of a car, I’m now able to clearly hear the conversations from the driver and the passengers sitting in the rear. Usually I’d have to turn my head 90 degrees to hold a conversation which would often lead to motion sickness because my equilibrium would be imbalanced.
Indeed, this thing is a lot smaller than I imagined. The design of the device is very simple and clean. It only has 4 control buttons: power, volume up/down and listening mode. The listening mode button is interesting because it allows you to change how you hear depending on your environment. It’s like having your own personal Pro-Tools Engineer who filters out different frequencies or noises with the push of a button. The front has a slightly gloss finish while the back is made from anodized aluminum and a push-down metal clip to secure onto your clothing. It also includes a pair of noise cancelling earbuds and a hardshell carrying case for portability.
Overall, it’s been a very worthy investment and I feel confident that I can hear what I need to in any given situation. No one has ever asked me what the device is so they probably assume I’m just listening to great music. Hopefully Merry will create a Bluetooth version to pair with wireless earbuds. But that will only happen if the demand for this device is large enough—but I think it is. If more companies like Merry designed hearing devices that looked cool and sounded great, I believe hearing impaired people of all ages would wear them. Eyeglasses aren’t just made to improve vision, they are also seen as a fashion accessory. That same kind of aesthetic thinking needs to be applied to hearing technologies. The chips are getting smaller, the technology is already here. One day deaf kids don’t have to feel embarrassed about wearing aids. It will simply be a fashion statement.
Derrick's Duracell commercial made me realize that I shouldn't be ashamed of SSD or feel the need to mask it with passiveness. His "no excuses" mantra and the powerful spot by Saatchi & Saatchi and director A.G. Rojas will inspire people will all kinds of adversities and hopefully bring awareness to the hearing impaired community. Hearing impairment is nothing to be ashamed about, in fact it’s made me who I am. The uncertainty, the tears, and the support of my family has put me into a position where I love what I do every single day.
My only regret is that I didn't get to direct Coleman’s video first.