Language and all the hemispheres

“Blindness separates people from things;
deafness separates people from people.”

-Helen Keller


Two years ago, one of my students started school without any language.  No signing and no spoken word.  He was bilaterally implanted (two cochlear implants), but hadn’t had the therapy, consistent usage, or mapping (when the audiologist adjusts settings according to her auditory needs) necessary to make them successful.  You could stand behind him and shout his name and he wouldn’t turn around.

He lived in a nameless world.  Objects had no labels.  He couldn’t recognize his name in spoken or signed language.  He didn’t understand transitions: why we entered or left rooms — and he didn’t understand classroom behaviors: why his classmates lined up or sat down or couldn’t touch certain objects.

Within the first two months of school he learned his colors, some numbers, some letters, the sign names of teachers and himself, and various classroom objects.  He loved learning.  It opened up his world. He would enter the classroom and run to the whiteboard and point at numbers and sign them.  He grabbed a book with pictures of objects labeled with the corresponding signs and he twisted his hand into the shape of the hand in the photo.

He would copy-sign everything I or an interpreter would sign to him (even if we were explaining something and not asking for it to be copied).  He mimicked our lips and attempted sounds.  At home, his parents didn’t sign with him, and he didn’t understand spoken words — his brain still hadn’t made enough connections to identify sounds with words/concepts/objects.

He was so excited to communicate, to share a system of signals that allowed him to express his ideas and understand ours.   We went on a field trip to a pumpkin patch, and he sign “pumpkin, pumpkin, pumpkin” over and over.

The videos that occasionally circulate showing a deaf child or adult hearing for the first time don’t show the whole story.  They show a very exciting start and potential for using listening and spoken language — which is amazing — but they don’t show the hours of auditory-verbal therapy, speech therapy, and other interventions that are required to help a child’s brain learn to interpret the signals it receives.  Adult patients who are implanted after being profoundly deaf since birth will likely not learn to understand speech, but might find other uses (eg. hearing their baby cry in the night).  Adult implant recipients who had hearing and then lost it later in life will have a much better outcome in terms of understanding speech — “They learn to associate the signals from the implant with sounds they remember, including speech.”  (

Understanding language through audition (hearing) is not as simple as an on-switch.  The first three years of life are crucial in the development of receptive and expressive language, as they are at the height of the brain’s neuroplasticity – the ability to create changes in synaptic connections and neural pathways that shape and restructure the brain.  After three, those pathways and connections can still be developed and an auditory-oral language can be learned, but the “success” rate and speech intelligibility are likely to be much lower.


I worry about my students with limited communication.  I worry they won’t ever catch up to grade level.  But more than that, I worry about how limited language — something I take for granted — will isolate them from meaningful relationships.  When they cry or hide under a table because they are upset but don’t have words to explain why.  When they are beyond that and know how to say “happy, sad, excited, angry” but can’t explain further.

I have to remind myself that words aren’t the only part of a relationship.  Words aren’t the only way to communicate.  That even if they eventually fall short of a fluent language grasp, they will still be able to give and receive love.  But it is frustrating.  It is reductive.  I want more for them.


I have other students with varying degrees of hearing loss who are excelling in their regular ed classrooms.  Their implants and hearing aids allow them to access sound.  They are getting A’s and B’s and the educational impact of their hearing loss is nuanced, and not immediately apparent.  You can’t hear it in their speech or always see it in their grades.  (But there are impacts.)


It’s a great big beautiful wonderful world.  It’s not all easy to understand.  There are questions. But there is beauty in the questions.

All the Hemispheres

Leave the familiar for a while.

Let your senses and bodies stretch out


Like a welcomed season

Onto the meadow and shores and hills.


Open up to the Roof.

Make a new watermark on your excitement

And love.


Like a blooming night flower,

Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness

And giving

Upon our intimate assembly.


Change rooms in your mind for a day.


All the hemispheres in existence

Lie beside an equator

In your heart.


Greet Yourself

In your thousand other forms

As you mount the hidden tide and travel

Back home.


All the hemispheres in heaven

Are sitting around a fire



While stitching themselves together

Into the Great Circle inside of





Not Okay.

As a 15-year-old in the Middle East, my friends and I used to make bets on how many cars would beep at us on our 10 minute walk to McDonalds.  Not because we were cocky pedestrians, but because we were young women walking unaccompanied by men, which, apparently, equated to beeping and shouting and gawking.  My 15-year-old dresscode tended to be an oversized t-shirt and jeans.  When I left the house I always had my shoulders and knees covered, out of respect for a culture that valued “modesty” — and also because if I didn’t the harassment and stares would be much, much worse.

We found the beeping stupid — when has that worked as a pickup for anyone? — and mildly amusing.  The stalking was less amusing: cars following us as we picked up our pace and eventually turned into a stranger’s walled entrance, pretending it was our home so that they wouldn’t know where we lived.  The beeping, stalking, and comments were a daily part of our lives; so daily that they didn’t seem of any particular note.  I sensed my vulnerability as a girl/woman, but I did not equate it to sexism or harassment.  I thought of it as a weird extension of flirting, just a way to show interest.


Several of my friends have been raped (by both strangers and boyfriends).  Those are the ones I know about.  All of my female friends have been sexually harassed or assaulted to varying degrees.  All of them.  I don’t mean unwelcome smiles or “Hey girl” type pickups.  I mean strangers following you and saying impossibly crude things and you don’t know what will make them go away: a smile, a phone call to a fake boyfriend, staring blankly ahead.  I mean bosses who are inappropriate physically or verbally and if you speak up it might mean your job.  I mean dates who decide that they’d really like to go a little or a lot physically farther, barreling through any world’s version of consent.  I mean long-term boyfriends or spouses who have no problem overpowering the person they are supposed to trust and respect.


There is #notokay hashtag trending on twitter where women are sharing stories of sexual assault.  It is horrifying.  It is pervasive.  It is real.


In her book, “Self Made Man,” Norah Vincent dressed as a man for a year as a social experiment.  Early on, she noted the difference in eye-contact she received as a “man.”

“I had lived in that neighborhood for years, walking its streets…As a woman you couldn’t walk down those streets invisibly.  You were an object of desire, or at least a semi-prurient interest to the men who waited there…If you were female and you lived there, you got used to being stared down because it happened every day.

But that night, dressed as a man, I walked by those same stoops and doorways…I walked right by those same groups of men. Only this time they didn’t stare. It was astounding, the difference, the respect they showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring…

That’s what had annoyed me so much about meeting their gaze as a woman, not the desire, if that was ever there, but the disrespect, the entitlement. It was rude, and it was meant to be rude, and seeing those guys looking away deferentially when they thought I was male, I could validate in retrospect the true hostility of their former stares.

But that wasn’t quite all there was to it. There was something more than plain respect being communicated in their averted gaze, something subtler, less direct. It was more like a disinclination to show disrespect. For them, to look away was to decline a challenge, to adhere to a code of behavior that kept the peace among human males in certain spheres just as surely as it kept the peace and the pecking order among male animals. To look another male in the eye and hold his gaze is to invite conflict, either that or a homosexual encounter. To look away is to accept the status quo, to leave each man to his tiny sphere of influence, the small buffer of pride and poise that surrounds and keeps him.

I surmised all of this the night it happened, but in the weeks and months that followed I asked most of the men I knew whether I was right, and they agreed, adding usually that it wasn’t something they thought about anymore, if they ever had. It was just something you learned or absorbed as a boy, and by the time you were a man, you did it without thinking.”


According to a UNICEF report, there are 24 African countries that still practice female genital mutilation.  This is a procedure performed on females — from infancy to age 15, in which the female genital organs are mutilated for non-medical reasons.  Among other lifelong issues, FGM often results in a lifelong pain during sexual intercourse.

“Psychosexual reasons: FGM is carried out as a way to control women’s sexuality, which is sometimes said to be insatiable if parts of the genitalia, especially the clitoris, are not removed. It is thought to ensure virginity before marriage and fidelity afterward, and to increase male sexual pleasure.”


Trump’s “locker room” talk was not an isolated, old conversation.  It is part of an ongoing culture of rape, sexual exploitation, and sexual harassment that sometimes feels permanently embedded in our world.

Language matters.  It shapes ideas.  It creates dialogues.  It incites action.

I didn’t plan on writing this because there are SO many blogs and tweets about this issue, from people with much more eloquent and powerful stories and thoughts.  But I truly believe that language, dialogue, and support matter.  So I’m adding my voice to the masses of Americans — of people — who are demanding change in the way our society treats women.