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?