Friday, September 2, 2016

Finding the Trail to Tactile Sign Language

When Orion was a baby, Thomas and I wondered how he would get from where he was as a baby, with fists and Moro reflexes, all the way to a tactile-signing DeafBlind adult. Just like the DeafBlind adults in our Deaf community. “How?” we wondered and it would stay like that for a couple years.

Meanwhile, within hours of Orion’s birth in July 2010, we went ahead and started with what we called “signing on the body” with our sign for “MILK". We decided we should go to him rather than expect him to put his little baby hands on top of our hands because that’s simply something infants don’t do, except perhaps grabbing a single finger with their fists.

One month old Orion grabs Daddy's pinky finger.
Description: Extreme close-up photo where a baby's forearm, while wearing a light blue long sleeved outfit, is visible holding onto an adult's pinkie finger.

I’ve always believed in the Hand-Under-Hand strategy for the DeafBlind child’s autonomy, observations, attention checks and participation opportunities. In the past year, I realized we answered the 6 year old question, that one of the pathways to tactile sign language communication was Hand-Under-Hand! Orion is learning that his hands make a difference, with them he is exploring his physical environment, other people’s hands and what their hands are doing. He’s starting to really see with his hands now, bring to life the saying I heard weeks before he was born, “DeafBlind children’s hands are their eyes". 

We still do use “signing on his body” also known as “touch cues”. What we do these days with Orion is letting him know we were here, then go to his hands (or he finds ours) and start out tactile signing (Tactile ASL, also known as TASL) since he’s getting better with voluntarily following our hand-under-hand action. When Orion doesn’t want to touch our signs, we then switch to signing on him but keep trying to return to TASL. We also continue to use touch cues when the TASL sign is new to him. 

Also an option is to imitate a motion or action associated with the action, this may speak for itself or is already identical to ASL. For example, to sign “OPEN” for twisting open the peanut butter jar, we hold an imaginary jar with the left hand while the right hand is on top imitating a lefty-loosey twist motion. That is the conceptually appropriate sign for that “OPEN” situation and it is what we actually do to open the jar. Because of their similarities to functional motions, these signs are likely to be among the first in Orion’s sign vocabulary.

Somewhere in that mix we must continue to use object cues, which are real objects or a recognizable part of the whole object. Children will understand what the object cue is since they’ve figured out what it’s function is, for example, a bottle, and it is in their hands right now and that’s their reference for what is to come next. Knowing American Sign Language, or any other language, is where you have the ability to talk about something that is not there in front of you nor happening right now. This is why we rely on object cues since Orion is not "there" yet. 

Orion feels his big brother sign "BUCKLE-TOGETHER".
Image description: A white haired 6-year old DeafBlind boy, shirtless and sitting in a black stroller has his hands on top of a 11-year old boy's hands signing "BUCKLE".

Hand-under-hand strategy allows Orion to feel his big brother snap together his stroller buckle. Orion may be feeling the same action with the skin of his abdomen.
Image description: A white haired 6-year old DeafBlind boy, shirtless and sitting in a black stroller, has his hands on top of a 11-year old boy's hands, connecting two ends of a buckle.

Orion still pulls away a lot from our tactile signs and hand-under-hand efforts but we noticed he is willing to “look” longer and longer. At 6 years old we are still seeing a slow but true trend of growth and participation from Orion. It’s a long journey and we need endless springs of patience, but it is still possible!

I’ll leave you with an enlightening and affirming quote shared in one of the OHOA Modules*, “Communication at any level is still communication.

*Open Hands, Open Access DeafBlind Intervener Learning Modules,

Here is a video also related to touch cues, body signs and tactile sign language.

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