Overview of Touch Signals



Overview of Touch Signals

Ashley Benton, L.C.S.W

Hello! I’d like to talk about touch signals. To begin, this is the sign for “touch signals.” (Ashley makes the signal for touch signals. She places her Open-5 hand on her opposite shoulder and taps her fingers one at a time like playing the piano.) That sign was created by a committee at the Helen Keller National Center (HKNC) which consisted of deaf-blind individuals who work at HKNC, as well as interpreters. After much discussion they agreed that the term “touch signals” would be signed like this. (Ashley makes the signal for touch signals. She places her Open-5 hand on her opposite shoulder and taps her fingers one at a time like playing the piano). Touch signals is a generic term. It is any kind of visual, environmental or social information that is provided through touch on the body.

My friend, Maricar, sat on that committee and introduced me to the sign. I love the sign. I think it’s perfect and I’m going to explain why. My son plays football. I often go to his games with friends. As a spectator, I typically have someone who tells me what is happening through tactile American Sign Language. It’s rather passive. However, utilizing touch signals and an SSP describing the game on my back is a very different experience. We have created different signals which tell me who has the ball, if a person is running with the ball, when/where someone is tackled, the yells from the spectators, etc. That kind of description is invigorating! I feel like I can understand the game and what is happening while it is happening! I am an active spectator! It’s a much different feeling than receiving the communication through tactile American Sign Language. In this way I am being informed what is happening, but through touch signals I feel like I am experiencing it! It is very energizing and empowering. The information is almost all encompassing. That’s why I think the sign that was chosen for “touch signals” is perfect.

I’d like to talk a little bit more about what touch signals is. Again, touch signals is visual, social and environmental feedback given through touch on the body. It could be given on the forearm, the back and other areas on the body. In the United States, we have been using some form of touch signals for many, many years and the concept is not new. In the last 20 years or so deaf-blind people have become more cognizant of touch signal systems being used within the community. For example, there is one system of touch that is being utilized today that falls under the philosophy called Pro-Tactile. Haptics is another system that is more commonly used in another country. And there are further touch systems that are used that may not have a name or a label.

I would first like to talk about Haptics. This system was developed in the 1990s in Norway. It is a standardized signal system where signals mean specific things. Signals presented in a particular order mean specific visual information. Again, it is a standardized system and it can be captured through pictures documented and taught. It is very clear where specific signals mean specific things. HKNC learned of this system and brought trainers to the United States and have been studying it for roughly the past 3-5 years. There is another system recognized in the United States that incorporates back-back-channeling and back-channeling. These methods are incorporated under the philosophy of the Pro-Tactile movement introduced in Seattle, Washington area in 2007.

This group began noticing the type of touch that was frequently used in the deaf-blind community and culture. They named this Pro-Tactile. Pro-Tactile is hard to define because it encompasses so many things. Pro-Tactile is a philosophy (P). As a philosophy it emphasizes that deaf-blind people place a high value on equality, deaf-blind culture and touch. In my opinion, there is some discussion as to how much touch is involved. There is a range of how much touch is utilized. Some people feel during active communication touch is warranted whereas other people think that constant contact between communication partners should be at will. Some people meet in the middle and use touch when it is warranted. Again, they emphasize that touch is highly valued and part of deaf-blind culture. The Pro-Tactile movement also emphasizes attitude (A). They believe that deaf-blind people should have equal access to the world as do their hearing-sighted peers. It also emphasizes that the deaf-blind person get access to that information in real-time and without delay. We want to be on the same playing field as our peers. Finally, Pro-Tactile has methods (M) which include back-channeling (BC), back-back-channeling (BBC), TASL (Tactile American Sign Language) and mapping to name a few. All of these methods could be incorporated into Pro-Tactile communication. Back-back-channeling may look similar to Haptics. It is visual, environmental and social feedback that is produced on the back through touch. It looks similar, but it is different. Haptics is a documented, standardized system. Pro-Tactile touch signals are agreed upon between communication partners; interpreter/SSP and the deaf-blind person. These touch signals are agreed upon at the beginning of an assignment/meeting or interaction and are not standardized. Each deaf-blind person will have their preferences based on need, setting and role. The interpreter will need to make accommodations based on the deaf-blind person’s preferences.

I’d like to go back to my opening remarks with regard to my son’s football game. The signals that were used on my back were not standardized in this instance. My communication partner and I created signals that were important to me in this setting. So we created signals to indicate someone running with the ball. A person getting tackled, etc. This is a specific example of coming to agreement about what would be conveyed through the method of back-back-channeling. Back-channeling typically occurs in one-to-one communication. Back-channeling allows the communication partner to provide feedback such as laughter, following the conversation, etc. It allows both people to be active participants in the communication. It is natural social feedback that occurs during the conversation. Without this type of touch, the deaf-blind person wouldn’t have equal access to the conversation. Again, this is not a standardized system and each deaf-blind person would have specific types of touch on the body to provide this feedback. It is the type of touch that feels natural during a conversation. This touch could be taps, but not necessarily a standard number of taps. Again, Pro-Tactile encompasses philosophy, attitude and methods. Pro-Tactile methods (BBC and BC) and Haptics are two types of touch signals.

When we use the sign “touch signals” it is a broad category encompassing any and all systems of touch. HKNC believes in an all-inclusive approach. They believe it is crucial to afford all students the exposure to all touch systems available so that each student can then decide what will work for them. Personally, I use the touch signals system that works for me. I believe in Pro-Tactile philosophy. I believe that culture and touch are crucial. But for me, I do not want touch all the time. I tend to use touch during active communication/conversation. I believe that attitude is important. I want equal access to my environment in real time. I want to be an active participant and PT affords me that opportunity. I use back-channeling and back-back-channeling.

I also use Haptics regularly. Since it is a standardized system I can utilize interpreters that have been trained in it and a standardized system is already in place for us to use. If I meet a new interpreter, I can simply ask, “Have you had training in Haptics?” If the answer is yes, then I know we have a starting point because she is familiar with the basic premise of the system and we can build from there. So that is my knowledge and experience with regard to touch signals.