AS AN eight year-old I was picked to play Vincent van Gogh in a short school play.
However, it wasn’t my outstanding ability as an actor or an artist that landed me the starring role.
My well-meaning but slightly insensitive teacher selected me because I was deaf in my left ear.
Apparently that made me the obvious choice to play a deeply troubled Dutchman who hacked off his own ear 100 years earlier.
The fact that this is by far the most interesting story I have about my ‘disability’ shows how little it has disrupted my daily life.
Admittedly, there were times when it proved an inconvenience.
For example, I cannot pinpoint which direction sound is coming from. Many is the time I have wandered aimlessly amid the cluttered desks in the newsroom in a forlorn effort to find a ringing phone.
And it certainly made it harder to talk to women in loud bars.
However, as I was never suave nor sophisticated, I doubt this can be blamed for my lacklustre love life during my formative years.
Yet my impairment did make me consider one crucial question.
What would life be like if anything happened to my other ear?
So when the Coventry and Leamington Hearing Centre offered me the chance to experience being ‘deaf for the day’, curiosity won out.
Essentially the experiment involved flooding my ear canal with a quick-setting solution that drowned out the sounds of the city.
As the cold gel dribbled into my ear, the world around me retreated.
It was quickly apparent I had not been plunged into total silence.
Instead sounds became muted and muffled, as if I were listening to them with my head held underwater.
This is a relatively common problem. About 10million people in the UK suffer from hearing loss.
Fewer than 700,000 of those are severely or profoundly deaf and rely on lip reading or sign language.
Yet even a more modest impairment can have a huge impact.
Suddenly the simplest conversation required intense concentration.
And when I couldn’t hear what was said I felt the strange, self-conscious urge to nod along regardless.
Michael Brough, from the Coventry and Leamington Hearing Centre, believes this is a common problem.
He said: “Hearing loss seems to bring an element of shame – people are ashamed to be different.”
“Pretending nothing is wrong can make people appear to be ‘stupid’, because they clearly haven’t understood what was said to them.”
By the time I took my first tentative steps into the outside world I felt both daunted and disorientated.
Yet the walk back to the Coventry Telegraph proved to be less challenging than I had first feared.
The city certainly sounded more remote, as though someone had dialled down the volume. However, the reassuring roar of the ring road was still there in the background.
I simply had to rely on my other senses to guide me through town.
With no confidence that my hearing would alert me to an approaching car, a cursory glance was no longer enough when crossing the road. I now had to stop and study the street before stepping off the kerb.
This slowed me down, but it was hardly a major hindrance.
Encouraged, I tried a telephone call to the office. The voice at the other end of the line was faint, but without the distraction of street noise I managed to make out what was said.
I began to wonder whether this was going to be easier than expected.
However, a reality check awaited me when I arrived at the office.
A busy newsroom offers no sanctuary for the hearing impaired.
For starters there were the cruel colleagues who delighted in mouthing wordlessly in my direction in an attempt to unsettle me.
Then there was the small matter that whenever I focused on my computer screen, it became impossible to pick out specific sounds from the background babble.
Several times I looked at my phone to spot a flashing red light alerting me to a missed message.
At one point a heavy hand on my shoulder alerted me to the fact that I had been ignoring my web editor for the last five minutes.
Though I made it through the day, it was a relief to rip the rubber cap from my ear and head home (not least because I had tickets to see Muse at the NEC).
Of course, those living with hearing loss do not have that luxury.
Gorki Duhra, from Action on Hearing Loss, warned: “Hearing loss can have far-reaching consequences, leading to isolation and exclusion.”
That can quickly force people to withdraw from social activities.
In some “heartbreaking” cases it can even become a barrier to intimacy between families and couples.
The only way to turn up the volume is using a hearing aid.
These have proliferated in the UK during the last 50 years.
In the early 1960s there were just 120,000 hearing aids in use across the entire country. Half were prescribed free on the NHS, the remainder were purchased privately.
Today more than one million people wear a hearing aid. Most are provided by the NHS, though some patients still prefer to pay privately for a wider choice and faster care.
Yet experts estimate that only a fifth of those who need a hearing aid actually wear one.
That means four million people in the UK are suffering in silence, without seeking the help they need.
Crystal Rolfe, audiology specialist at Action on Hearing Loss, believes many people are put off because they do not want to look old or disabled.
She said: “There’s still a stigma surrounding hearing aids, but it’s out of date. They’re much smaller and neater than they used to be.
“We need a new attitude to hearing aids. Wearing them should be as unremarkable as wearing glasses.”
The challenge now is ensuring that vital message is heard.