Total Communication: helping students find their voice

This guiding philosophy of the Deafblind Program breaks down barriers so students can communicate and self-advocate

"How do you communicate with a deafblind person? With trust and respect," Martha Majors, Executive Director Deafblind Program

I’m often asked, “How do you communicate with someone who’s deafblind?” I always respond, “With trust and respect.” As education director of Perkins’ Deafblind Program, I’d say our Total Communication approach isn’t just a way of teaching: it’s the philosophy permeating our work.

Imagine you’ve lost the ability to speak—there are devices and applications to help you. But our students don’t know the fundamentals of communication yet. So, our work breaks down barriers, and teaches them necessary tools to learn how to express their thoughts and needs.

Total communication means we use any and all means—technological, physical, tactile and so on—to achieve this.

Just like you or me, children who are deafblind deserve to have their specific communication needs met effectively. Some like physical contact, some don’t. Some have partial vision, some don’t. We learn these preferences and needs first.

Then, we build respect through interactions. Take a student who has no vision or hearing. I might start with a shoulder tap (to alert the student to my presence), then follow gently down the arm and end at their hand.

Each of our teachers has an identifier—I have a bracelet—as a way to say hello and “introduce” ourselves. Then, as I repeat these interactions, consistency helps the student understand who I am and what I’m trying to do.

From there, the relationship through touch grows. I may use hand movements or teach a meaningful gesture, like “stand.” I then integrate objects. A cup could represent “drink,” and we use different cups to show how different objects convey the same concept.

Simple sign language, either gestured or hand under hand, can connect objects to words. Pictures, visual systems and print can link physical items to ideas. Students who vocalize can be taught words or sentences.

Our students use assistive technology, both low- and high-tech. Low-tech might look like a simple switch that the student flips to indicate hello or goodbye. Students who can’t make signs or don’t have fine motor skills but have good communication might use a high-tech device, like a voice output system, to articulate ideas.

Now, the communication builds. If a student prefers pictures to signs, we deepen and broaden understanding through images. We teach students to communicate using the modes that work for them—and thus to self-advocate. This is how they grow.

Students flourish with Total Communication because of its inclusive approach. It thrives because of our trained staff and materials we customize for each student. With your help, we can continue to support the deafblind community.

As Education Director of the Deafblind Program, Martha Majors has served the Perkins community for 46 years. If you would like to support Perkins or get involved, call (617) 972-7328 or email


This story was originally published in Spring 2019. 

Read more about: Advocacy, Deafblind, Perkins News