Q&A: How Pro-Tactile American Sign Language — PTASL — is changing the conversation

Perkins Diversity and Inclusion Speaker Jaimi Lard and Sign Language Interpreter Christine Dwyer describe the revolution sweeping the deafblind community

Dwyer and Lard face each other while signing.

Lard and Dwyer are helping lead a revolution in the way deafblind people communicate. They are ambassadors for the cutting-edge linguistic movement known as Pro-Tactile ASL (PTASL).

October 1, 2018

Jaimi Lard, a former student in Perkins’ Deafblind Program, and Christine Dwyer, a Perkins sign language interpreter, met in 1984. Since then, they have used tactile American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate — much like Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan did more than a century ago. 

Today, three decades later, Lard and Dwyer are helping lead a revolution in the way deafblind people communicate. They are ambassadors for the cutting-edge linguistic movement known as Pro-Tactile ASL (PTASL). 

Tactile ASL is a visually-based language that is practiced through touch in the air, while PTASL is rooted in touch and practiced on the body. PTASL, developed by and for people who are deafblind, can also be used to connect small groups of people in communication, instead of just one-on-one. 

Dwyer’s expertise landed her a competitive spot in a two month-long PTASL training program at the Deafblind Interpreting Institute. In August, she traveled to Oregon for a week of immersion and instruction in PTASL and was one of only 37 people from around the country chosen to participate in the training. 

Read on to hear what PTASL means for Lard and Dwyer, as well as their hopes to help educate the world about this groundbreaking movement. 

Dwyer and Lard facing each other as they sign.
Perkins spokesperson Jaimi Lard, who is deafblind, and her interpreter Christine Dwyer make the sign together for the linguistic movement, Pro-Tactile American Sign Language (PTASL). To make the sign yourself, if you are able, place the palm of one of your hands flat onto the back of your other hand. Now, wiggle your fingers. Imagine your wiggling fingers represent thoughts and stories — shared freely and simultaneously through touch using PTASL.

How did PTASL develop?

Christine: About 10 years ago, a group of deafblind people in Washington were getting really frustrated because they wanted to have meetings with each other and there weren’t enough interpreters. They thought, “Why do we need all these interpreters to help us communicate? Why can’t we just communicate ourselves?” So they started figuring it out — from that grew the principles of PTASL and the writing of a federal grant to spread PTASL and get proof for the government that it has grammatical differences from ASL and English that make it its own language. 

How did you first hear about PTASL?

Christine: Over the past five or six years, I started to take workshops and hear about PTASL in the interpreting community. I saw a gentleman attending a comedy show — he had one interpreter in the front giving him the language and a second interpreter in the back giving him the motions of the stage — so he was getting the visual information and the auditory information.

In April, Jaimi and I also attended the inaugural Deafblind International Network of the Americas Conference, which Perkins co-hosted, and learned more about PTASL

What has changed since you started using PTASL?

Christine: Our communication is clearer than it was six months ago. It’s less disjointed. It’s smoother, and we’re not even really fluent yet. I’ve known Jaimi since 1984, and to see that this new thing has changed our way of communicating with each other is pretty fascinating.

Jaimi: We started using it as soon as Christine got back to the office from her week in Oregon. Wow — I saw the difference. Lots of things that were visual, I was just missing. Very often, deafblind people start to feel paranoid because they are not sure what’s going on, because you're just constantly wondering what kind of information is going to be coming in. I feel so much more relaxed. There’s so much improvement. By directing signs onto my body, I can get more involved — it’s just that much clearer.

Two sets of hands intertwined as they sign.
In PTASL, signs that once may have been communicated through touch in the air are now communicated directly onto the perceiver's body.

How does PTASL promote inclusion?

Christine: It fosters autonomy. By providing people who are deafblind with information, they in turn can make the decisions for themselves — rather than relying on my vision and my ability to determine what’s going on. Let me tell you what the environment is, and you tell me how you want to proceed. 

For example, when our colleague Michael came in the room earlier, I quickly, in PTASL, reached down to Jaimi’s leg and told her someone came walking in. Prior to that, in the old way, if she was in the middle of saying something, I had to wait for her to finish, and then I could say “Michael is here.” Now, she has the information and she can decide: “Do I want to stop and find out who that is, or do I want to finish what I was saying?” It’s not my decision anymore.

What is unique about PTASL and what makes it an important communication advancement?

Jaimi: I get all this backchanneling [constant feedback through touch]. For example, Christine just told me our colleague Michael left. Touch is going to give me so much more information.

[Jaimi shares here that, through PTASL backchanneling, she is perceiving in real-time that I, the interviewer, am smiling as I’m hearing her speak.] 

Christine: You can immediately indicate: laughing [scratching]; “uh huh” [tap tap tap];  “yes, I agree” [fist moves up and down like a nodding head]; “no, no, no” [flat hand rubs back and forth like a shaking head]. In the old way, using tactile ASL, I’d have to wait for someone to finish and remember what was said and how I wanted to respond. This is part of where Jaimi and I feel like the information is smoother. 

How has PTASL changed the way you experience the world?

Jaimi: Growing up, people would point around and I would do this thing called the ‘deaf nod,’ but honestly, inside, I don’t think I really understood. A lot of deafblind people just become quite passive. Communication can be really limited. 

Sometimes, someone would say something to me that I thought was funny, but they were actually sad about it and that would be really awkward — I had huge misunderstandings with people. So, by using PTASL, especially the backchanneling, l feel like there’s less of these misunderstandings. If the interpreter gives me the frown sign, I know it’s a sad thing, not a funny thing; or, the interpreter signs laughing, so I know that it’s a funny thing and I can then respond appropriately by laughing like everybody else does. 

Using touch, I feel more involved in the communication. I feel more connected to it. Even, I would have to ask Christine sometimes — “are you mad at me, are you sad?” because of all of the visual stuff I was missing and not understanding how someone was feeling. Then, you start getting paranoid — and wondering, “Is it me?” By giving this kind of information, we can both make each other feel better and have that mutual respect.

What is an example of a communication principle that PTASL emphasizes?

Christine: Source information. Let’s say I’m in a restaurant and I say to Jaimi, “Oh, the weather is going to be bad.” How did I know this? Did I hear it from the waitress? Did I pick up the phone and check my weather app? It’s important to add where that information came from. If it was the phone, maybe in the future she will ask someone: “Hey, can you check the weather on your phone,” or maybe she knows the waitress and says, “I want to ask the waitress more about a topic.” The PTASL training re-emphasizes this principle. 

Who can benefit from using PTASL?

Christine: Everyone. Here is an example: recently, my niece was trying to explain where she had left her car in a store parking lot. I asked her to give me her hand and drew a map of the lot. She immediately pointed to where her car was.

Is PTASL right for everyone?

Christine: No — it’s important to say that not everyone wants it. PTASL includes a lot of touch and some people are just not comfortable with that. It has to be a choice, and you should always ask and receive permission before using it. You have to respect everyone’s way of communicating. As educators, we also have to think about and identify which students would be best to introduce this to; it’s not appropriate for every student.

What is your favorite thing about using PTASL?

Jaimi: Since we are always in physical contact, I don’t feel as distant. I feel more involved. Christine bringing back this new information has just really made me feel so much better about myself and it just makes my whole life better  — all-around.

Dwyer and Lard signing.
Dwyer demonstrates the impact of PTASL by telling Lard a story about a cat running up a tree. Using Lard's arm as the tree, she said, creates a more dynamic and shared storytelling experience for Lard than would have been conveyed using the "old way" of tactile ASL.

What are your hopes for the future of PTASL?

Jaimi: I’m really excited about getting my other deafblind friends together so that we can start to use it more. I really want to run workshops and teach people in my community — interpreters and deafblind people. I want people to start getting immersed in this language and see where it will take off.

Christine: I think it will grow and get the proof the government needs [to qualify as its own language]. Then, courses can be developed and people will have a choice. As the next step in my training, I will be educating the community about PTASL. It’s about taking this and giving it to the people who need it. So, through Perkins, Jaimi and I will be able to do a lot about that. 

What You Can Do

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Read more about: Jaimi Lard, Deafblind