“Blindness separates people from things;
deafness separates people from people.”
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.” (https://www.nidcd.nih.gov)
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
Like a blooming night flower,
Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness
Upon our intimate assembly.
Change rooms in your mind for a day.
All the hemispheres in existence
Lie beside an equator
In your heart.
In your thousand other forms
As you mount the hidden tide and travel
All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire
While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of