by Sarah Segal
*Names were changed to protect privacy
I didn’t realize until recently that before I even met Lauren, I had already begun imagining her.
You see, I like to write stories sometimes, and exactly one year ago, I was writing character profile notes for a short story about a young girl who suddenly loses her command of the English language. My character wakes up one day to discover that she can no longer speak or understand language, and must confront the challenge of communicating via
other means. At the time, it was my convoluted way of coping with my own writer’s block (hah), but the idea of total language attrition also sincerely fascinated me.
A month after I scribbled these notes and cast the story idea aside, I met Lauren, a nineteen-year-old deaf refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for the first time. When I entered a cramped office at the International Rescue Committee’s headquarters (IRC), an international organization that provides aid to victims of humanitarian disaster, Lauren was sitting on a raggedy couch between her older brother and mother. I smiled at her as I informed her family through a Swahili-speaking interpreter that I would voluntarily help Lauren develop her language skills. Lauren, unlike her sisters and brothers, never had formal schooling prior to her arrival to the U.S., and was totally language-less. She relied solely on gestures and grunts to communicate.
Let me be clear: Lauren didn’t arrive to this country language-less because of any mental deficiencies or acquired injuries; she’s simply deaf. She wasn’t given the opportunity to learn a language where she previously lived, whether because of limited resources or ignorance, and consequently is decades behind in language development.
But you’d be surprised how much Lauren understands. When I worked with her last summer, my primary role was to help
her learn American Sign Language. I took her out on walks and signed to her. I practiced signs with her using flashcards. I even brought a book that allowed her to “see” words and identify the pictures that went with them.
My first revelation with Lauren was on a sundrenched Sunday afternoon, at her family’s dining room table. I held up an I SPY flashcard that depicted images of bees in them, and pointing to a fat, furry bee in the photograph, asked
Lauren to identify the image for me. A flash of recognition shone in Lauren’s eyes as she gestured with her right index finger a bee diving into the heart of a flower, signaled with her left hand. In that moment, I could see and feel the bee buzzing. I felt I could almost sense what may have flashed through her mind, which, to me, was a heartfelt appreciation of nature.
Lauren surprised me many meetings after that. I remember walking around her neighborhood alongside Lauren and her little sister, who I’ll call Lisa, and seeing the look in her eyes when I asked her if she wanted to see my car. She didn’t just recognize what I asked her—she was excited. As we headed toward it, she frolicked ahead of me with Lisa’s hand in hers, in delight.
To say the least, I’m astonished by Lauren’s gift for expression. Lauren was—is—reflexive and introspective even
without language. She has a voice, but just doesn’t have the means to express it yet. That Lauren and I have crossed
paths is sort of a miracle. I’m extremely fortunate to have grown up in the wealthiest state in the country, and in one of the wealthiest counties, as a Montgomery County, MD, native. I wore hearing aids from the time my hearing loss was discovered at six months old, was never without a Cued Speech transliterator throughout my education here, and had an entire family who learned the system to communicate with me. With the aid of Cued Speech and an
outstanding education, I surpassed many of my hearing peers in the language arts. I’m now in my early twenties and entering a master’s program at American University to study creative writing this fall.
Lauren’s story means something to me because it led to a personal discovery of what really matters if you’re deaf and struggle with it: it isn’t about how much you hear, but what you’re capable of. Lauren has a long road ahead of her, but even with almost two decades without language, her expressive skills and tenacity to learn has her on the cusp
of joining the rest of us.