Editor’s Note: As part of our recent feature on guiding parents through their language choices for children with hearing loss, we asked a mother to share her story. Here’s the experience of Mari Kuraishi:
Five years ago, we picked up our son Calvin in Hangzhou, China. We’d been cocky as world travelers and set up our own travel arrangements—flown to Shanghai direct, and planned on taking the high-speed train to Hangzhou (less than an hour). We got ourselves to the train station successfully, but realized pretty quickly that all the seats were booked; we couldn’t just get on the train.
We eventually got ourselves from the train station out to a bus station and eventually to the city of Hangzhou on a two-hour bus ride that dropped us off in a quasi-industrial part of town at around 9 in the evening. Let’s just say we were a bit strung out when we met Calvin the next day at the city hall offices bright and early at 9 a.m.
But it was nothing compared to how strung out he must have been after three and a half years of having no access to language. All we know is that he was found (not far from the bus station we’d landed at the night before) at the light industrial goods market a year and half before, at what doctors estimated was about 2 years old. They diagnosed him immediately with profound hearing loss, and everyone in the orphanage made special efforts to treat the little boy with extra care. But that didn’t include specialized education, which meant he could not acquire language—no one in his orphanage could do anything about that.
So that wintry day when we met him, we immediately started signing to him, pointing to the snow outside and signing snow, followed quickly by food, water, bathroom, books and iPhone (!), and reading him books that paired illustrations with signs. He was a total sponge.
And when we enrolled him at the Kendall Demonstration School on the campus of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., he fit right in. He had a lot to learn, but there was a huge contrast between the shy distant demeanor that he had shown in the videos from the orphanage, and the way he was playing with his classmates at Kendall.
Meanwhile, we worked on getting his hearing checked, taking him to Johns Hopkins for a full workup and getting him hearing aids. These helped a little but not enough to distinguish words. We learned that he was a good candidate for cochlear implants.
So six months after that wintry day in Hangzhou, Calvin got his first cochlear implant, and started attending the River School, which specializes in supporting kids with assistive hearing devices. For the last five years he’s been in classes made up of hearing peers and a significant minority of kids with assistive hearing devices (hearing aids and cochlear implants).
He can still sign a bit, but he’s also able to hold a conversation with strangers, go buy a doughnut at the bakery by himself, and read and do math at grade level—a big leap for a kid who had no access to language five years ago. His spoken English isn’t quite perfect—there are still odd gaps in his diction and his vocabulary isn’t what it might be had he followed a normal developmental path. But, like every 8-year-old, he goes around the house holding his LEGO airplane making bombing noises and giving a running commentary of what the pilots are saying to home base.
We still sign together—when he’s in the pool, having discarded his cochlear implants instead of putting them into their little zippered plastic bags—or at bedtime after he’s taken off his cochlear implants. And sometimes we sign across big distances when yelling at each other won’t work. And it’s our little special way of communicating.
Mari Kuraishi is the co-founder and president of GlobalGiving. She also serves as chair of the board of Guidestar U.S., on the board of DataKind, APOPO U.S., and the Global Business School Network. In addition to her native Japanese, Luraishi also speaks Russian, Italian and French. firstname.lastname@example.org