Touch Signals: A Personal Perspective



Experience with Touch Signals

Ashley Benton

Hi! My name is Ashley Benton and I have Ushers syndrome Type 3. I was born hearing and sighted. As I grew up I began to lose both my hearing and vision. I am currently employed as a DeafBlind Specialist in North Carolina. For ten years prior to this position I was a mental health counselor specializing in alcohol and drug abuse counseling. I communicate in (visual) American Sign Language but as my vision has deteriorated I am transitioning to tactile American Sign Language. The use of touch signals, for me, has been a process.

As a result of my vision loss and my inability to see sign language at a distance, I have begun to transition to tactual sign language. Utilizing a tactual sign language interpreter for work has been a tough transition that I am patiently working through. I have been able to advocate for tactile interpreting support at work. I thought receiving these services would resolve the challenges I have been facing at work but I notice there are still situations where I am missing information. For example, as a therapist my job is to counsel consumers in a 1:1 setting. What I noticed is that it became difficult for me to accurately ascertain consumers’ facial expressions.

As a therapist, I am sometimes involved with psychiatric appointments where patients meet with their doctor. In one particular situation they were discussing the need for medication. I was present with a tactile sign language interpreter who was conveying visual information to me during the meeting. In this scenario my consumer was having financial difficulties and had been unable to purchase cigarettes for two days. This consumer was a heavy smoker with a three pack per day habit. As a result of going cold turkey for two days he/she was extremely restless and was scratching their face/head quite a bit. My tactile interpreter was relaying all of the visual information that they were witnessing during the meeting. The consumer was watching the description the interpreter was giving me and found it to be very distracting and disconcerting, influencing the patient to change his demeanor with the doctor. I realized that by providing me with visual information this was actually influencing the interaction between doctor and patient. I realized that as a therapist the visual information that I gravely needed to do my job effectively needed to be afforded to me in a discreet fashion. I thought that perhaps Haptics might be a venue to receive this information.

In another situation, a consumer called me via videophone. Fortunately, I had an SSP with me. The SSP was able to relay what the consumer was saying to me. The consumer wanted to see me immediately, but unfortunately I had appointments already scheduled. I asked that they be patient and see me the following day. After much back and forth with the consumer requesting to be seen that same day, I insisted that they wait until the following day. After we had hung up, the SSP had told me that the consumer had been crying incessantly throughout the call. I asked the SSP why they didn’t convey this information to me while we were on the phone. The SSP said, “I can’t they were looking right at me!” But I needed to have that information in the moment while I was managing the phone call. To find this information out after the call had been disconnected was too late. I felt bad at the misunderstanding due to miscommunication.

In looking at each of these situations I think that utilizing Haptics could have been beneficial. My state has a DeafBlind organization where I had seen Haptics in use. Marilyn Trader had taught the Board President Haptics to help him facilitate Board meetings. When I saw for the first time all of the touching involved, I thought “This is not for me.” It looked funny and didn’t seem at all to be comfortable to be touched that much! But after these two situations happened at work I started to realize that maybe Haptics would help. It would afford me more visual information discreetly. There would be fewer misunderstandings and I would get the visual information in real time, as it was happening. After much back and forth, although I wasn’t 100% comfortable with this level of touch I thought that tactile sign language should be sufficient.

As I was still giving it thought, another situation came to pass. The North Carolina Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which provides advice to governmental agencies within the state of NC, asked me to facilitate a Council meeting. I wanted to show the Council that a DeafBlind person could facilitate this level of meeting. The Council meeting consists of about 20 people brainstorming, often having overlapping dialogue with vibrant heated discussions. Participants are typically upper management within local agencies and I wanted to do a good job facilitating the meeting. I thought this would be a good circumstance to try incorporating Haptics into my facilitation of the meeting. In speaking with my interpreter I decided that I would like to try a few signals for the meeting. As a new user I wanted to keep it simple with 2 or 3 signals. We agreed that one signal would be to identify those participants who raised their hand with a comment or a question. Another signal would be to notify to me if the interpreter was still voicing for me. Finally, the last signal would be to identify participants entering or leaving the meeting room. Once agreed upon we went forth with the meeting and it was seamless. At the conclusion a number of people came up to me and complimented me on facilitating the meeting. I realized that by incorporating Haptics benefitted me in that I was able to participate in the meeting fully without any delay in receiving visual information. I felt that I was able to competently execute my duties as a professional on par with my colleagues. It was such an empowering experience and since that time I have been using Haptics more and more on a daily basis. I’m hooked and look forward to learning more so that I can use it more effectively and efficiently.