Total Communication

The Deafblind Program supports a Total Communication philosophy, where any and all means of communication are developed and encouraged. Language is modeled throughout the day in the form of speech and sign language, and students are encouraged to use any combination of communication methods that works best for them. These may include any or all of the following:

Touch Cues

Touch cues are an important foundation for engagement as well as a way to get and give information. Touch cues have many purposes, and can be used as a prompt or a way for the student to know that staff is present in their space. For example, a tap on the hand or shoulder lets them know they are not alone. Touch cues can also act as a physical guide to interact with an object. 


A gesture is an intentional physical motion or movement used to communicate with a partner. Gestures can be a valuable method of communication, especially when a student is engaged with another person. They can also be a way for the learner to convey simple statements like “I’m finished” or “I don’t want that.”

Objects and Tactile Symbols

Objects or tactile symbols are used often to build communication skills with students. Teachers will commonly begin by using a concrete, whole object (known as an “object of reference”) to represent an activity. For example, a student will learn to associate a plastic bowl with mealtimes. Once a student is familiar with the object and what it represents, teachers may introduce less specific objects or a portion of the original object (a piece of the bowl) to mean the same thing.

Tactile symbols are used to represent more abstract concepts, like a specific class or regular event. In each case, teachers will select a tactile symbol that triggers the student’s memory of an individual experience, such as a parent picking them up from school.

Pictures/Visual Systems

Pictures or other visual systems such as photographs, line drawings, Mayer-Johnson Picture Communication Symbols (PCS) or Symbol Stix are often used for communication with students who have some vision.


Print or braille labels are commonly used to label within a school or work environment for students who are learning print-based communication skills. 

AT/AAC Low and High Tech

Assistive Technology (AT) and/or Augmentative/Alternative Communication (AAC) devices can be helpful tools for students as they develop speech and language skills. These devices range from low-tech single message systems to high-tech computer-based technology that requires training.

  • Partner assisted scanning is an example of low-tech AT being used to develop communication skills among children with limited motor control. In this exercise, a teacher will present a series of pictures or items to a student one at a time, while watching for a response in the form of a gesture, vocalization or gaze.
  • Eye Gaze is an example of high-tech AT that uses a small infrared sensor to track a student’s eye movements, allowing him or her to control a computer cursor by looking at it.


Students are encouraged to use speech or other vocalizations to communicate with others if they are able. Students' speaking abilities range from a simple vocalization, to the utterance of a single word, to full sentences. Speech is always modeled alongside other communication methods.

Sign Language and Tactile Sign Language

Many students in the Deafblind Program use sign language – formations and movements of the finger, hands and arms – to communicate with teachers and peers. For students who are totally blind or have limited vision, tactile signing (signing while in physical contact with another person) is used to allow them to feel the sign and better understand what is being conveyed.

Like speech, students are exposed to sign language in all of their activities and are encouraged to sign at whatever level they are comfortable with, building from approximations and single signs to three-sign utterances and full sentences.