Hanyao – a Pandemic Story

By Stuart Kamenetsky and Hanyao Xu

Like many middle-aged professors, I had never used Zoom before the pandemic hit and we had to quickly pivot to offer our courses online. Zoom, along with a couple of other platforms, was made available to us as a solution. I had heard of Zoom prior to the pandemic, but witnessed it being used only sporadically – to accommodate faculty and/or staff who couldn’t attend meetings in person.

This is a story about how through Zoom, Hanyao and I connected in a manner that most likely would not have happened otherwise. Hanyao was an international student from China. He also happens to have a speech impediment. Our connection resulted in Hanyao ultimately accepting his speech impediment, learning to live with it, and gaining the courage he needed to talk about it openly in front of other students. This story is not about me. It’s Hanyao’s story to tell. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that while students with challenges need to take the first step and reach out, it’s our sacred duty as faculty and staff to make ourselves available to listen, especially during difficult times that negatively impact us as well. This is certainly not a novel story and nor is the message. Yet it is one of many stories that represent what many of us did – we listened to our students and did what we could to help them during the COVID-19 pandemic – a natural disaster characterized by loneliness and isolation around the globe.

Because of travel restrictions and the shift to online classes, Hanyao did not return to Canada to resume his studies after his second year. Like so many other students, he spent the pandemic taking courses via Zoom from his home abroad, rather than being isolated in a small university residence room or apartment in Canada. It was quite challenging to engage students while teaching on Zoom. Since recordings of the lectures were provided, many students did not show up, especially if class time was inconvenient for them. The majority of students who did show up kept their screens off for various reasons. As instructors, despite being somewhat frustrated, we had little recourse since we had no right to demand that students share with us their private living space. Some students displayed a picture, an avatar, an icon, or anything else they felt like showing. This also enabled students with social anxiety to attend classes while hiding all aspects of themselves – something they could not do before the pandemic when classes were held in person.

Hanyao regularly attended my large 3rd year “Exceptionality: Disability and Giftedness” lecture course and shared his Zoom picture during class. He displayed the yellow “SpongeBob SquarePants” icon. Later on, when I asked him why he used this particular icon he told me that he liked it very much. According to Wikipedia it is among the “greatest cartoon characters of all time.” SpongeBob is “good-natured, naive, and enthusiastic.” I wonder how significant Hanyao’s choice of icon was! I was always happy to “see” Hanyao there. I only knew his name and associated it with the icon but since he never participated verbally nor in the chat, I knew little about him other than through infrequent emails to clarify course material. Then one day, I received the following email from him:

“Please allow me to take some time to briefly introduce myself and why I am fascinated by this course. I am a person with a serious stutter and was always laughed at as a child, I was trying to be the quote-unquote normal person (my favorite word you often used in the lecture) as same as other people around me and I was wondering why I was born to be laughed at and why I was born with a defect, I used to once ask questions to you via email, your answer my question very well to solve my question and said if you have more question you are welcome to come to my office hour; I am very willing to attend your office hour to ask questions but I was afraid that I messed up and make myself embarrassed due to my stuttering.  After I heard your lecture for PSY345, the scene that moved me the most is that children got cluttering speech in Bar Mitzvah and its intervention, you said that “just talking the child, a little bit very, very kindly and just whispering into his ear it’s okay slow down take your time.” I also hope others around me treat me like this rather than laughing at me when I am stuttering. Also, “The Deaf Culture” you presented in the lecture is the thing that really changed the way I think about disability and my own stuttering, you said that people with hearing impairment (in the deaf) culture don’t see deafness as pathology/as a medical problem, they don’t want to belong to the quote-unquote normal people in the rest of the world, they are happy to use American sign language to communicate with each other in their community. As I am a person with stuttering, I am very supportive and admired their confidence and ideas, I am trying to be a part of the group of the “normal people” as the confidence they had (see themselves as the normal people). I don’t want to see my stuttering as a medical problem as well.”

Yes, Hanyao’s English isn’t perfect. It is his second language, but of course, that’s not what this is all about. I’ve been lecturing on disability and inclusion for the better part of 25 years. I also served as faculty advisor for the undergraduate psychology program for most of my career and chaired the academic appeals board for many years. Through these experiences over the years, I have listened to and read countless student pleas that make for difficult reading. Each student is a unique individual, of course, and their experiences are very real. It is so important to not become numb to what has become an overwhelming number of cases over a long period of time, especially since many difficult cases, such as illness or death of a loved one, sound similar.

I was deeply touched by Hanyao’s email. A student from the other side of the world whom I have never met, had reached out to me in the midst of the isolating COVID-19 pandemic. He didn’t ask for any help. He simply acknowledged that something I said in class was personally meaningful to him. I was now in the position to either thank him for his kind note or to offer him help he never asked for. I have no clinical training and have no applied role beyond my teaching responsibilities. Like other professors – I was also busy with my many duties and struggling to keep up with new ways of working, let alone the ever-changing rules and regulations concerning the pandemic. But his words “I was wondering why I was born to be laughed at and why I was born with a defect” brought tears in my eyes and I couldn’t stop thinking about them, trying to imagine what it would be like to be a young man like Hanyao. Like all of us, Hanyao and I are simply imperfect mortal human beings. By some divine intervention, which I’ll never fully understand, we were connected using relatively new technology that I had never used prior to the pandemic. Had this been before the pandemic, classes would have been held in person and Hanyao may have never showed up because of his social anxiety due to his speech impediment. I never used to offer lecture recordings and thus Hanyao might never have heard my story about the anxious Bar-Mitzvah boy whose cluttered speech to the congregation got better following the caring and gentle support of the Rabbi. Speech impediments are often exacerbated and may even debut during anxiety-provoking situations. In such cases, effective solutions can be provided through natural supports rather than pathologizing diagnoses, treatment and therapy. Hanyao, of course, does not deserve to be laughed at. None of us do. And a “defect” is a very harsh word for someone to use to describe something about themselves that they cannot change.

I answered Hanyao, and thanked him for his kind words as well as his openness. I told him that I would love to meet him on Zoom; that I would be patient and accept any communication modality he chooses. The first meeting started with the SpongeBob icon, along with written communication via the chat function. At some point his screen turned on and I got to see his face. Hanyao tried to say something with great difficulty and repeatedly apologized for “putting me through this.” As the Rabbi did for the Bar Mitzvah boy, I reassured Hanyao that I have all the time in the world; that it’s an honour for me that he trusted me enough to reach out to me and accept my invitation. I told him that he is a valuable human being who is not perfect – just like the rest of us. I shared with him that I have learned to live with and accept my own essential tremor that often embarrasses me too. Hanyao discovered that rather than looking at me – speaking while typing worked best for him and indeed his speech became more fluent. We had several more Zoom conversations during which his speech further improved. More and more he was able to speak without typing and with fewer hesitations and interruptions.

I asked Hanyao whether he would like to make a presentation about his speech impediment to my 4th-year disability seminar and he agreed. He was too nervous to speak in real-time in front of a group of 20 students, so he recorded his presentation and provided a written submission to the class. Hanyao disclosed a difficult family situation that may have contributed to his speech impediment and answered students’ questions during the hour-long session. During his presentation, students supported him with kind text messages in the chat and with warm words using their voices. They sent him thumbs ups and hearts. In their weekly reflections I read how moved they were by Hanyao’s courage to own his speech impediment and live with it. These reflections were consistent with their warm and supportive facial expressions during Hanyao’s presentation. This class is comprised of outstanding students who will later gain admission into postgraduate programs in the helping professions. Like me, they learned how important it is to start the helping process by listening and providing natural supports rather than jumping too quickly into pathology, diagnosis, and treatment.

As for Hanyao, that was just the beginning. He later told me that he plays the guitar and sings. He now has a girlfriend who fell in love with him because of his music. She fully accepts his stutter which is quite mild when they are together since he feels so comfortable with her. Hanyao graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Science (only missing distinction by a very small margin!) with a double major in psychology and philosophy, and has been accepted for graduate studies in psychology. As pandemic restrictions were lifted, Hanyao and I met in person. We were both masked and as such had a somewhat restricted ability to see one another’s facial expressions. Perhaps that final pandemic requirement made our first in-person meeting a bit easier and less emotional for us both (thank goodness!). I look forward to meeting Hanyao in person with no restrictions in the very near future.

Let’s all continue to learn to listen, to accept one another as imperfect human beings, and to start by accepting ourselves as such, first. Let’s not look at ourselves and at each other through the deficit, defect, and pathology lens. Let’s look at ourselves and at each other as people first and seize precious opportunities to listen and support one another, especially when vulnerable others reach out to us during difficult times.

Stuart B. Kamenetsky is a professor in the Department of Psychology, University of Toronto Mississauga. Correspondence about this article can be sent to: stuart.kamenetsky@utoronto.ca.

Hanyao Xu is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto Mississauga currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in the field.

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