Reflections on Deafblindness: Hands & Touch

In this webcast, Barbara Miles, a well-known author and lecturer, discusses the unique function hands serve for individuals who are deafblind. For people with vision and hearing impairments, hands become eyes, ears, and a voice.

In this webcast, Barbara Miles, a well-known author and lecturer, discusses the unique function hands serve for individuals who are deafblind. For people with vision and hearing impairments, hands become eyes, ears, and a voice. Barbara’s realization that hands have so many critical roles changed the way she interacts with the hands of children who are deafblind.

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  1. Introduction
  2. Touch as Essential for Learning for Most People with Deafblindness
  3. How Touch is Influenced by Culture
  4. Functions of Hands for Persons who are Deafblind
  5. Interacting with Persons Who Are Deafblind
  6. Touch As the Foundation for Language Learning

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

MILES: When we think about the importance of touch and hands for someone who is deaf-blind, when I think about that, a couple of stories come to mind first. Someone told me this story about a little girl in preschool. She was four years old, and she had some hearing and some speech.

Barbara Miles talks about the importance of touch and hands for someone who is deafblind.She came into school one day, and she said to her teacher, “Look, I got a new barrette.” She was totally blind, and she was showing her teacher her new barrette. And her teacher said, “Oh, it’s beautiful.” And the little girl said, “No, you didn’t see it yet.”

And the teacher, being really smart, realized what she meant, and walked over and touched the barrette with the little girl and said, “Oh, it’s lovely.” And the little girl said, “Thank you.” So when I heard that, I was enlightened.

And I’ll tell you another story that happened to me when I was teaching, and I had a student who was totally deafblind, and he would come into my classroom. He was a teenager at the time, and we communicated through tactile sign language. And I would greet him by touching him on the shoulder, and then briefly coming under his hand to sign “Good morning.”

And he would just have that simple touch of touching my hand. And often he would say to me in sign language something like, “Oh, you’re happy today,” or, “You’re sad today, why?” And I realized that he knew by that simple touch how I was feeling. He was always right about his perceptions of my feelings. He couldn’t see my face. He couldn’t hear my tone of voice.

All he had was that brief touch on my hand, and he knew how I was feeling. So he could see a lot with his hands. So those stories have been very instructive to me.

CHAPTER 2: Touch as Essential for Learning for Most People with Deafblindness

MILES: As people who mostly now as adults use our eyes and ears for learning, we sometimes forget that we started out also using a lot of touch for learning, and using our hands for learning. And for developing a sense of our self and the world.

Most young children begin life with their hands very close to their bodies, and as they develop, they begin to discover that they can move their hands, and then they discover that they can see their hands.

A child with vision who explores the world needs a secure base from which to explore. And every child needs that. And a child with vision will use his vision or her vision to establish that base after it’s been established intimately with mother, caregiver, or father, and so venture out a little, and look back at mother, look back at father.

A boy being pushed in a wheelchair along the hallway and is encouraged to touch a radiator to feel the ridges.“Am I okay? I’m safe.” And then be willing to venture out a little more.

Now, if a child doesn’t have much vision, or no vision, then it’s still important that they have that sense of a base from which to explore. And touch can establish that base.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, a young blonde boy who is blind is in a wheelchair, being pushed along the wall of a hallway. He is encouraged to reach out and touch a radiator which runs along the wall, feeling the ridges as he is pushed along.

“Yeah, can you feel that bumpity, bumpity, bumpity, bump?”

Someone who is familiar with the fact that in fact for a blind child, and for many children who have little vision, their hands are essentially their eyes.

MILES: And I certainly know that when I had that thought, a light bulb went off in my head. I mean, it was just amazing to think, “Oh, you know what? That’s really different than the way I use my hands.”

CHAPTER 3: How Touch is Influenced by Culture

MILES: I’ve realized in my experience of exploring the topic of touch with children who are deafblind, who need touch so much for learning, I’ve realized that there are huge cultural variations in the way that people use touch, and the comfort that people have with touch.

And I often say that the main thing is just to be aware of each of us, of our own cultural upbringing with regard to touch, and to be aware that children who are deafblind very often, if not almost all the time, really need touch for learning in one way or another, especially in early stages, and sometimes for their whole life.

So we need to be aware of that, and to become as comfortable as possible as we can using touch. For example, our culture in the US is not accustomed to touch in quite the same way as Latin cultures are. Somebody put video cameras in restaurants and counted how many times an hour people touch each other in Florida, I think it was monitoring couples at a table.

And it was, like, two times an hour. And in Latin America it was 90 times an hour. And that is the extent of what a cultural difference can look like. So touch has a cultural origin, you know? And we live in a culture where touch is very often, in the media, anyway, equated with sex. And there is nonsexual touch as well. And sometimes we think of it only in connection with sex.

No. There is touch that is communicative in many ways, and needs to be, for children who are deafblind. And people who use it need to be very conscious of their own upbringing and of their own biases and of their own boundaries with regard to touch.

CHAPTER 4: Functions of Hands for Persons who are Deafblind

MILES: When I realized one day — it really happened one day, after I had been teaching for quite a while and developed ways of touching with my students. I was trying to explain to someone why I stopped taking a child’s hand and putting it on something else.

And I realized that the reason why I had stopped doing that was because I had realized that the childrens’ hands were their eyes, and I would never put my fingers in a child’s eye to try to get them to look at something, because our eyes are so sensitive. Well, a child who uses their hands like eyes to get information, their hands are also very sensitive. And so I want to treat them with utmost respect. I realized that, and then I started thinking, “Wow, their hands… for a child who’s deafblind, their hands have to be eyes.”

They have to be tools to grasp things, which is the way that most of us who can see use our hands. We pick up things, we type, we eat, we brush our teeth, we use our hands mostly in a kind of tool function. So a person who’s deafblind uses their hands that way, but also as eyes to get information, feeling about the world, reaching out. Also, often as ears.

Sometimes you’ll see a child reach for another person’s throat to feel the sound. That’s a kind of ear function of the hands, like they’re feeling the vibration of the sound.

A blind boy is reaching up and placing his hand alongside a woman's lower jaw.NARRATOR: In a photo, a boy who is blind sits on the grass outside. He wears a green baseball cap. Kneeling beside him is a gray-haired woman wearing glasses. The boy is reaching up and placing his hand alongside the woman’s lower jaw.

MILES: I’ve seen children put their hands on a table. Children who are both deaf and blind put their hands on a table to feel the vibration of people walking by, so they might feel the floor shaking the table surface, shaking a little. There are ways that hands for those children become like ears.

Also, for a child who’s deafblind, very often their hands have to be their voice, because many of them learn sign language. Many of them certainly use their hands gesturally to communicate, or to point, or to reach in a way that their hands are really comparable to our voice.

NARRATOR: A dark-haired man wearing a t-shirt with a print of large tropical fish sits on a couch and speaks using signs and gestures. The man, who is blind, finishes his thought and reaches out to a woman seated next to him so that she may use tactile sign language to respond.

MILES: And then many, as we sometimes do, too, use their hands as a way of self-regulation, I’ll call it. You know, maybe make gestures or little flicking things. I know some people who can see and hear, like, twiddle their thumbs, they use their hands in that similar way. So just becoming aware of all those functions has given me a tremendous respect for the hands of people who are deafblind, tremendous respect, and a sense that I just really want to treat and interact with their hands in a very careful way as a result.

CHAPTER 5: Interacting with Persons Who Are Deafblind As a Hand-Skill As Well As a Communication Skill

MILES: There are a few things that have become very important to me in my interacting through touch. And one of them is I sort of have a rule for myself never to control a child’s hands. Because the way that I think of that is that if a child is using their hands like eyes, I want their eyes to have freedom to look where they want to look.

And so I, as far as possible, never take a child’s hand and force them to do anything with it. I leave the child’s hands free all the time, which means I will come underneath their hands when I want to sign to them or show them something. I will come underneath and reach for something, and they can follow or not if they want.

If they’re free, I know whether they’re looking or not. If they’re not free, I don’t know that. I don’t know the quality of their attention. So to me, it’s done wonders for my relationships with children to keep that rule for myself, is not to control a child’s hands, virtually ever, and instead find other ways of showing them things and of inviting them to touch things.

A blind boy touches the wall as he climbs the stairway.NARRATOR: A boy who is blind climbs a stairway with the assistance of a woman. The woman reaches across the boy to touch the wall. His hand rests atop hers. As the stairway turns to the right, they encounter a wooden lattice in front of a window. Together they explore the textures and shapes of the lattice as they climb the stairs.

MILES: Another thing that I found wonderfully powerful and enjoyable is to offer my hands in a position like this as a way of letting a child know that I’m listening to them — that my hands are like ears, and that they might want to say something. And very often that makes the beginning of a game, and we can play together with our hands. And for a child who is likely to use their hands as a voice, those games are really, really valuable. And they often get initiated just by that gesture of offering hands. And by those games, the child begins to feel, “Oh, my hands can speak.”

You know, “We can talk with our hands here.” What I realized some years ago was that I was taking childrens’ hands — and I did that when I started teaching, because that’s what I was taught to do — I was taking childrens’ hands, because I was thinking about tools, and I was thinking I’d just use my tool to help his tool do something. But when I realized that hands are like eyes for children who need them to see, then I realized that I needed to show them the world, and I needed to show them what I was doing by inviting them to touch me while I was doing things and modeling for them.

Very often we expect children who are blind to do a task that they’ve never seen. And that’s not fair. And so I always, if I’m hoping for a child to do something, I do it first, and I let them touch me, and I invite them to touch me. I don’t force them, but I invite them to look at me while I’m doing whatever I’m doing, and give them the model for what I’m asking them to do. And that model, given respectfully over and over, often results in them wanting to do it.

NARRATOR: A young girl who is deafblind sits in a wheelchair. Across her lap is a tray. A woman stands to the side of the chair, and we watch as they peel a carrot. The girl’s hand rests on top of the woman’s hand as the woman moves the peeler along the carrot.

CHAPTER 6: Touch As the Foundation for Language Learning

MILES: Someone told me yesterday that a hearing child hears 31,000 words a day. And say they say their first word at age nine months, they’ve heard millions of words.

A child who’s deafblind doesn’t have access to that language that lays the foundation for their own expressive language. And for many of them, that language has to come through the hands. And that’s why these respectful ways of interaction and the comfort with just your hand being in contact a lot is so important, because it will help give that access to language for those who need it in that way.

You know, when a child is learning language, if they have vision, the mother will often point at something and say, “Oh, look, there’s the doggie.” And the child will look at the dog, and that word “doggie” will have meaning, because they’re both looking at the dog.

Now, if a child can’t see, establishing that joint attention, or the knowledge that we’re both talking about them same thing, that’s a little trickier. So touching together can provide that, and so anything you notice that a child is touching, you can join that, and that gives that sense of, “Oh, you see it, too.”

A teacher signs and speaks to the boy as he takes the key from her.NARRATOR: A boy in a yellow shirt and a teacher in a light blue sweater stand together in a room. The boy, who is blind, discovers a set of keys hanging from the teacher’s pants pocket. She signs and speaks to the boy as he takes the keys.

MILES: Yeah. These are the keys of the school.

NARRATOR: Together, the teacher and the boy use the key to unlock a classroom door.

MILES: Why don’t we open the door together? And so you might remember the barrette and the teacher who said, “Oh, yes, now I see it.” And the little girl said, “Oh, now, yes, you see it.” So seeing together can happen with the hands, and needs to happen with the hands for many children with deafblindness.

You don’t need to know sign language or any particular language in order to interact with the hands of a child who’s deafblind. In fact, a lot of very respectful interaction without language lays the basis for the development of sign language, and it is really important for a child to become comfortable with other people’s hands in order to be able to have access to language.

Because for many of these children the language will come through the hands. And so just inviting the child to lay their hand on yours, and showing them what you’re doing, letting them touch you in places that are comfortable for you, touching together things, that’s wonderful. And that can happen no matter how much language a child has or doesn’t have. And it’s a process of kind of making friends in that realm of touch.

Reflections on Deafblindness: Hands & Touch with Barbara Miles.

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