Tactile Revered

6/7/2017

Hold up your hands. Look closely at your fingers and the palms of your hands or move your fingers and feel all the joints and muscles in action.

Imagine that your only access to language, people, conversations, books, email, the internet and incidental information was dependent solely on these amazing parts of your body.

As June is Deafblind Awareness Month, think for a moment about people who are Deafblind, for whom many, can only engage with the world through the use of their hands and the sense of touch. 

That means communication must be done in a tactile way. Reading must be done in a tactile way. Essentially, listening and seeing is all done through touch.

The hands are truly remarkable. According to Wikipedia, 'fingers contain some of the densest areas of nerve endings in the body, and are the richest source of tactile feedback'. I certainly take for granted all the functions that my hands perform throughout the day and I don't typically pay attention to any tactile info my hands relay, at least not consciously.

I am, however, grateful that I have learned how to use my hands to express a language, American Sign Language (ASL). It truly is a beautiful linguistic symphony of handshapes, corresponding movements and facial expressions.

Having learned ASL, I have also learned how to adapt this visual language to communicate with someone who can no longer see the signs. The idea that someone can learn how to feel ASL is amazing. I have tried to close my eyes and place my hands on top of someone's while they sign. I'm totally lost; my brain is not trained to receive information tactilely. It could be trained to do so. That is the amazing thing; humans are resilient creatures!

When I am communicating with someone who can longer see, I can empathize and try my best to be the lens through wish they can see the world again. I become a narrator by describing people, places and things through the sense of touch.

I appreciate the gift of sight and the gift of hearing. I can sit in my living room and gaze out the window at the orioles perched on the feeder, see the branches waving, look up at the sky and see the white tracks left behind as a plane passes by. I can turn my gaze inside, turn on the TV, watch a movie, flick to the news, watch an old rerun of Star Trek, listen to my family's conversation in the kitchen, hear my dog barking to go outside…the list goes on and on. Each of these stimuli provokes an emotion and a state of being.

I have unlimited access to information, people and things. I can go outside, walk down the country lane or get in my car and head to the store. I am constantly being exposed to information and I have the freedom to listen or look at countless sources of stimuli. Generally, I'm not mindful of the gifts that these senses offer. It's just a normal part of life.

Another normal part of life for me is working in Deafblind Services. Using my hands to communicate with others is just a routine activity. A woman who is Deafblind comes in to my office with her intervenor for a short chat. We quickly communicate; I'm signing and she's listening with her hand, which is placed gently on top of mine. Just an average day.

But then I stop and focus on her hand that barely touches mine. She instantly responds to my attempts at humour – the communication is graceful and smooth. She has mastered the skill of tactile reception and she makes it look so easy.

It's so easy that it seems she can see me. We are just two people having a conversation. But, when her hand leaves mine, I can still see her, watch her smile and listen to her giggle, whereas she has now ended her connection to me and she is enveloped in her silent space. A space that is restricted to the extent of her reach. A space that is dependent, in many ways, on others to reach out and reconnect. 

Tactile sign language is just one method of communicating using our hands.

Here at CNIB, we are more familiar with the tactile skills involved with reading braille, but have you ever heard of finger braille? Or the Tadoma Method?

I attended a conference in Cincinnati and witnessed the Tadoma Method being used. It was incredible! Helen Keller used this method. If someone was speaking, Helen would place her hand on their face. I'm assuming she asked permission first. (wink) Her thumb would rest on their lips to feel if air was being expelled as someone voiced letters like 'b. Her index finger would rest on the jaw bone, feeling the movement of the mouth and cheeks, and her other fingers would rest on the throat to feel the vibrations from the vocal chord.

There is also the Two-Hand Manual Alphabet. Have you ever seen someone use this method of tactile spelling? It can be learned in about 15 minutes! Want a fun secret code to use with your kids? Teach them the Two-Hand Manual Alphabet.

I can't talk about the value of touch without mentioning the Pro-Tactile movement. Deafblind leaders in the USA gave 'voice' to this philosophy, something that existed within their culture but needed to be recognized and emphasized. Basically, their philosophy reflects the cultural importance that touch has for someone who is Deafblind.

Branching out below this Pro-Tactile philosophy are some unique, revolutionary manuals which describe touch or haptic symbols that can be used when communicating with someone who is Deafblind or people who are hearing-blind.

Haptic signals "are 'drawn' onto the body – typically on the upper part of the back or the upper part of the arm. They provide the possibility of a detailed visual interpretation during communication. They are used to convey visual, social and environmental information discreetly and in real-time to a person who is deaf-blind'." 

The Danish Association of the Deafblind created a reference book called '103 Haptic Signals' and the Helen Keller National Center in New York has also published a manual entitled 'Haptic Communication' which can be purchased and downloaded on Kindle at https://www.helenkeller.org/hknc/publications.

Helen Keller is not alone in her infamous ability to break from the silence and darkness of her world. We have modern day Helen
Kellers right here in Canada who have mastered the power of touch. Get a little tactile today!

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