Communication without language

Her real name is Yu-Chen, but everyone calls her Yo-Yo.  I don't quite know what that means in Mandarin, but it seems like a perfect nickname for this 15-year-old girl with sparkling eyes, a perennial smile and all of the energy and enthusiasm you would expect from someone her age.  Born with a severe hearing impairment, she was one of my fellow winners of the Fervent Love of Life award in Taiwan.  Because of her hearing impairment, she didn't speak her first word till she was nearly 3 years old and despite powerful hearing aids and other interventions, still gets most of her information from reading lips.

As a child, she experienced many of the difficulties children with sensory impairment do.  She spent many hours with difficult and time consuming therapies that interfered with her development of peer relationships.  She also found school difficult until they were able to accommodate her differences.  And of course things got worse with adolescence as she was often ostracized by the other kids.

But despite, or because, of these difficulties, she was an extraordinarily sensitive and compassionate young lady.  When she was old enough, she volunteered a great deal of time being a mentor to autistic children.  After a typhoon, she spent days rescuing abandoned animals and has continued to do so for the last two years.  I found her energy and sensitivity to be magnetic and we became fast friends. The fact that we could not communicate directly with one another didn't seem to be that much of a problem.  She knew some English, but between her speech impediment and her accent, I couldn't understand more than a few words here and there, so all of our communication was either through her mother or my interpreter.

On the third day of my visit to Taiwan, her mother told me that Yo-Yo wanted to talk with me "about some feelings she had inside."  My first reaction was how honored I was by her apparent trust.  But I also wondered about how much pain she must have been in that she needed to talk to a psychologist who couldn't understand her language.  It turns out that both were true.  Later that afternoon we found a quiet place to talk and we were joined by Judy my 25 year old interpreter. 

Children born with disabilities often do pretty well in childhood but begin to have emotional difficulty when they get into high school. Many kids have told me that this is a time in their lives when they just want to be like the other kids and they feel angry about the unfairness of their disability and it is like they struggle anew with how to deal with it.  This was the case with Yo-Yo as she told me she wanted to be closer to some of the girls in high school, but she was afraid to open her heart for fear they would make fun of her.  She told me about her strong desire for more closeness with her friends and confusion about how to achieve that without being made fun of.  Add to these difficulties raging adolescent hormones which she said made her "feel funny inside".  We talked a great deal about my experience with disability when I felt a great deal of shame and feared rejection, and Judy talked about her own experiences of alienation and confusion when she was in high school.

The conversation was very open, honest and quite intimate.  Clearly this was the kind of conversation Yo-Yo wanted, but was never able to have. When we finished, we just sat quietly together looking at one another, holding hands or not.  Yo-yo then rested her hand on my thigh, and as she moved it, she discovered my catheter tube.  She looked down at my thigh and then looked in my eyes.  Then she removed her hand from my thigh and touched her hearing aid.  And then she touched her heart and reached over and touched mine.  And then we hugged.  No longer psychologist and patient, but fellow members of a club nobody volunteers for but one in which we all understand each other.

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