Gao Yuye, an undergraduate student at East China University of Science and Technology, attracted widespread Internet coverage over the weekend after a video of her inarticulate speech at a graduation ceremony went viral online.
“Sorry, I’m deaf and have a poor pronunciation,” she said, starting her speech. “I will try my best to pronounce every word clearly.”
The 23-year-old, who was born deaf, evoked sympathetic responses from online viewers as she expressed pride in her four-year academic accomplishments and optimism about her future study in America.
Many web users said it was the most touching graduation speech they had heard this year, and confessed they were moved to tears while watching the video. “With hearing impairment, you are already successful to speak so clearly,” wrote one user on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
“When a disabled person is working so hard, is there any excuse for us healthy people to be lazy?” wrote another.
Gao, who hails from Anhui Province, never succumbed to her disability. Instead, she managed to go from kindergarten to university in classes with ordinary peers and found time to work in charity services for the deaf.
She was born to deaf parents, who had hoped their child would be normal. That did not happen. When she showed no response to sounds and doctors failed to make any progress in treatment, Gao’s grandmother took her to a rehabilitation training center when she was less than 3 years old.
“I still have some vague impressions of my grandma helped me learn reading every night, with cards spread all over the bed,” she said. “That’s how I learned to talk.”
When it came time for her to enter kindergarten, her grandmother insisted she attend a mainstream school instead of enrolling in a special school for disabled children. It was the start of her progress through a normal world.
Although she wore a hearing aid and could read lips, Gao’s orientation in the ranks of ordinary children was never easy. But she persevered against the odds. After high school, she enrolled in the School of Art Design and Media at East China University of Science and Technology, achieving the highest score of her class in academic tests and the second highest in an art exam.
“There is a saying that when a god closes a door, he opens a window,” Gao said. “When the door of my ears was closed, my ability to endure and handle adversity grew stronger. That is the window the god opened for me.”
Her motto: “Deaf people can do everything except listen.”
Despite her hard work and academic excellence, Gao’s applications to some schools were rejected because of her deafness. “I’m so grateful that our university accepted me, taught me knowledge and helped me grow up,” she told the graduation ceremony. “I will remember that kindness throughout my life.”
Students entering the university were asked to write a letter to themselves and then open it when they graduated. Gao wrote: “I will be a high achiever who is strong, unique and loves challenges. I will strive to pronounce every word clearly, overcome every difficulty and achieve every goal.”
There were, of course, setbacks and frustrations in her university years.
During her freshman year, she failed an exam in English — long a nemesis subject for her. Worse, the time set for the make-up examination coincided with the funeral of her beloved grandfather.
At the insistence of her family, she returned to university in tears and sat the exam. “That painful experience has always reminded me of the consequences of slackness, Gao said. “I began to devote myself to study more than ever before.”
Her deafness often meant that she had to work harder than classmates. When she couldn’t grasp lessons, she searched for learning aid materials and consulted teachers and other students. To conquer the challenge of learning English, she recited vocabulary every day, even during holidays at home. In the end, she passed the College English Test Band 4, a national English competence test taken by most college students in China.
Her hard work opened the door to scholarships and several design competitions. She will leave for the United States in August to study for a postgraduate degree at Gallaudet University, a private university for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing located in Washington.
“Today, I can proudly tell my family, my teachers, my classmates and myself that I made it,” she said at the graduation ceremony.
Gao takes particular pride in her volunteer charity work.
She has helped other deaf people learn sign language and helped other charity workers learn how to communicate with the hard of hearing.
“Some people think that only normal people can be volunteers, but disabled people can also help others,” she said.
During an internship in her senior year at university, she participated in a charity program for the deaf jointly operated by China and Singapore.
Her graduation project was an application that translates ordinary speech into sign language and sign language into normal speech. The app also teaches the sign languages of different countries.
“Though I can talk, sometimes people don’t understand me because of my poor pronunciation,” she said. “So I wanted to develop a tool to help people like me and to help those who cannot talk at all.”
Improving such communication is important, she added, in breaking down stereotypes and discrimination that often afflict the hard of hearing.
With her knowledge of Mandarin, English and Shanghai-style sign language, Gao said she will focus on learning US-style sign language and writing in English. She is also keen to study the latest social and educational aids to help disabled people when she returns to China.