On Healing 6/22/2009: The special challenges of a teen who is deaf

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 perpetual smile, and all 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 disability, she didn’t speak her first word till she was nearly 3 years old and despite powerful hearing aids and other interventions, she still gets most of her information from reading lips.

As a child, she experienced many of the difficulties children do with sensory impairment. She spent many hours with difficult and time-consuming therapies that interfered with making friends. She also found school hard until staff 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 has become an extraordinarily sensitive and compassionate young lady. When she was old enough, she volunteered a great deal of time as 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 each other didn’t seem to matter. 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 through either 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.

That afternoon we found a quiet place to talk and were joined by Judy, 25, my interpreter.

Children born with disabilities often do pretty well in childhood but begin to have emotional difficulty when they reach high school.

Many kids have told me that this is a time when they just want to be like other kids. They feel angry about the unfairness of their disability; it’s as if they struggle anew with how to deal with it.

This was the case with Yo-Yo, who told me she wanted to be closer to some girls in high school. But she was afraid to open her heart for fear they would make fun of her.

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 and the times I felt a great deal of shame and feared rejection. Judy also talked about her own experiences of alienation and confusion when she was in high school.

The conversation was very open, honest, and intimate. This was the kind of exchange 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, we were fellow members of a club nobody volunteers for but where everyone understands one other.

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