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Tactile signing is a common means of communication used by people with both a sight and a hearing impairment (see Deafblindness), which is based on a sign language or another system of manual communication.
"Tactile signing" refers to the mode or medium i.e. signing (using some form of signed language or code) using touch. It does not indicate whether the signer is using a tactile form of a natural language e.g. American Sign Language (ASL), a modified form of such a visual sign language, a modified form of a manual code for English Manually Coded English or something else. It has also been referred to as "hand over hand", referring to the position of the listener vis. the signer.
Several methods of Deafblind communication may be referred to as tactile signing, including:
- Hand-over-hand (also known as 'hands-on signing'): The receiver’s hand(s) are placed lightly upon the back of the hands of the signer to read the signs through touch and movement. The sign language used in hand-over-hand signing is often a slightly modified version of the local sign language; this is especially the case when used by people who have learned to read sign visually before losing their vision as with Usher syndrome. The sign language used may also be a manually coded version of the local oral language (such as Signed English), or a mid-way point between the two known as contact signing.
- Tracking: The listener lightly places their hand(s) on the wrists or forearms of the signer to help them track the signs visually (as the listener knows the location of their own hands and is thus able to focus on the signer's hand(s) as they move in space. The listener using 'tracking' typically has a limited field of vision.
- Tactile fingerspelling (a manual form of the alphabet) in which words are spelled out (see manual alphabet) may be the best known as it was the method Anne Sullivan used to communicate with Helen Keller. Different manual alphabets may be used, such as the one-handed ASL alphabet or the two-handed manual alphabets used, for example, in Britain. Again, the listener places a hand over that of the signer. This alphabet is also rarely used in the United States.
Humans are capable of adapting to the environment and their imperfect bodies, for example with glasses and modifying their diets to fit local ecologies. (See adaptation.) Until the 1970s, it was rare for a person to be both deaf and blind; most people who were deaf and blind lived lives of isolation. As professionals became aware of this population, attempts were made to serve both adults and children who are deaf and blind by modifying the manual alphabet mentioned above, or the sign language used by deaf-sighted people. See for example Helen Keller National Center, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired and Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.
- Lorm: A hand-touch alphabet developed in the 19th century by Deafblind inventor and novelist Hieronymus Lorm and used in some countries in Europe.
- Tracing or 'print-on-palm': Tracing letters (or shapes) onto the palm or body of receiver. Capital letters produced in consistent ways are referred to as the 'block alphabet' or the 'spartan alphabet'.
- Braille signing: Using six spots on the palm to represent the six dots of a braille cell. Alternatively, the signer may 'type' onto a table as if using a braille typewriter (see Perkins Brailler) and the receiver will place their hands on top. This method can have multiple receivers on top of each other, however a receiver sitting opposite will be reading the braille cell backwards.
Additionally, simple ways of responding such as a tap for 'yes' or a rubbing motion for 'no' may be included. In Japan, a system developed by a deafblind woman is in use to represent the five vowels and five major consonants of the Japanese language on the fingers, where the signer 'types' onto a table and the receiver places their hands on top to 'listen' (see this page for more info).
What was especially challenging was communicating with children or babies born deaf and blind who had not had an opportunity to learn a natural (spoken or signed) language. Below are listed some of these attempts.
- Co-active signing: The sender moves and manipulates the hands and arms of the Deafblind person to form sign shapes, or fingerspelt words. This is often used with deafblind children to teach them signs, and with people with an intellectual disability.
- On-body signing: The body of the person who is deafblind is used to complete the sign formation with another person. E.g.: chin, palm, chest. Often used with people who also have an intellectual disability.
As the decades progressed, deafblind people began to form communities where tactile language were born. Just as deaf people brought together in communities first used invented forms of spoken language and then created their own natural languages which suited the lives of deaf-sighted people (i.e. visual languages), so too, deafblind people in communities first used modified forms of visual language and are now creating their own natural tactile languages. For the development of visual sign languages, see for example: Deaf Education; List of sign languages; Nicaraguan Sign Language. One of the most active communities is in the Seattle area of Washington State. See Washington State DeafBlind Citizens .
Comparison to visual sign language
Little data exists on the specifics of variation between visual and tactile sign language use. However, studies suggest a significant degree of difference. In hand-over-hand signing, elements of deaf sign languages known as 'non-manual features' (such as facial expression) will not be received, and will need to be substituted with supplementary information produced manually. Common non-manual features used in Deaf Sign languages that are absent in tactile signing include raised eyebrows as a question marker and a shaking head as a negation.
Tactile signing also resides within a smaller space than is typical in visual sign language. Signs that touch the body may be moved forward into a more neutral space. Other signs which are usually produced in an 'out of range' location (such as the leg) may be modified (either spelled or a variant sign used).
Different rules govern turn-taking, greetings and goodbyes.
An example of a language that naturally developed among the deaf-blind is Bay Islands Sign Language in Honduras.
Interacting with deaf-blind people
When interacting with deaf-blind people, a number of considerations may be taken into account.
Many deafblind people make the most of their remaining sight, so the right lighting is vital. Mostly bright, even light is best (avoid glare), but some prefer dim light, so it is best to ask.
Susie Morgan suggests the following guidelines for appearance and attire of interpreters working with deafblind clients:
Wear clothes that provide contrast for your hands. Consider the following when selecting clothing:
- Dark colors (black, navy blue, brown, dark green, etc.) for persons with light skin
- Light colors (off-white, tan, peach, etc.) for persons with dark skin
- Solid colored clothing (avoid stripes, polka dots, etc.)
- High necklines (no scoopnecks or low v-necks) Contrasting colors between skin tone and background walls can also help.
It is better to avoid jewelry which can be distracting, either tactually (e.g. rings and bracelets) or visually (e.g. sparkling drop earrings). Fingernails should also be short and smooth. A neutral color of nail polish may be worn, but bright reds and dark colors can be too strong. Working in close proximity to clients when using tactile sign, interpreters need to be aware of strong smells such as perfumes, cigarette smoke or onion breath.
Tactile signing can also be exhausting for both the interpreter and the deafblind client. Breaks are even more important than with regular interpreting, and should be taken more often. Correct seating can also reduce the risk of strain of injury; both communication partners should be comfortable and at an equal height. Specially designed cushioned tables for tactile signing can be employed.
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In 1648 in England, John Bulwer wrote of a couple who were proficient in tactile sign communication:
"A pregnant example of the officious nature of the Touch in supplying the defect or temporall incapacity of the other senses we have in one Master Babington of Burntwood in the County of Essex, an ingenious gentleman, who through some sicknesse becoming deaf, doth notwithstanding feele words, and as if he had an eye in his finger, sees signes in the darke; whose Wife discourseth very perfectly with him by a strange way of Arthrologie or Alphabet contrived on the joynts of his Fingers; who taking him by the hand in the night, can so discourse with him very exactly; for he feeling the joynts which she toucheth for letters, by them collected into words, very readily conceives what shee would suggest unto him. By which examples [referring to this case and to that of an abbot who became deaf, dumb, and blind, who understood writing traced upon his naked arm] you may see how ready upon any invitation of Art, the Tact is, to supply the defect, and to officiate for any or all of the other senses, as being the most faithful sense to man, being both the Founder, and Vicar generall to all the rest."
- Frankel, M. A. (2002), Deaf-Blind Interpreting: Interpreters’ Use of Negation in Tactile American Sign Language, in Sign Language Studies 2.2, Gallaudet University Press.
- Mesch, J. (2000), Tactile Swedish Sign Language: Turn Taking in Conversations of People Who Are Deaf and Blind. In Bilingualism and Identity in Deaf Communities, ed. M. Metzger, 187–203. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.
- O’Brien, S., and Steffen, C. (1996). Tactile ASL: ASL as Used by Deaf-Blind Persons. Gallaudet University Communication Forum. Volume 5. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.
- Bulwer, J. (1648) Philocopus, or the Deaf and Dumbe Mans Friend, London: Humphrey and Moseley.