Pro-Tactile ASL

How do people with combined vision and hearing loss communicate with each other? Through touch!

What is Pro-Tactile American Sign Language?

Pro-Tactile ASL is now considered a distinct language from ASL, which DeafBlind activists started referring to as “Visual ASL” or VASL, in order emphasize the different modalities of the languages. The Pro-Tactile movement is not just a language movement but also a holistic philosophy of DeafBlind autonomy and community-building. The Pro-Tactile movement believes that DeafBlind people are empowered through community with other DeafBind people, and the natural language most easily shared by the community is tactile sign language.

Who uses Pro-Tactile ASL? What if my DeafBlind child is developmentally delayed, and/or intellectually disabled?

Most of the pioneers of the Pro-Tactile movements are DeafBlind adults with Ushers Syndrome who were previously active members of the Deaf Visual-ASL community but gradually became socially alienated as they could not see well enough to follow conversations. They came together starting in the early 2000s in Seattle to create and standardize their own tactile language; the development of this language is still taking place as an ongoing process.

However, despite the fact that many active users of Pro-Tactile were previously fluent in Visual ASL, the Pro-Tactile community asserts that Pro-Tactile ASL is also the natural language of children born DeafBlind, and the most accessible language to DeafBlind people of any intellectual ability. This means that you don’t have to know visual ASL first in order to learn Pro-Tactile ASL. A person born DeafBlind would ideally be socialized into using Pro-Tactile ASL from a young age, just like we are socialized into using other languages from a young age. Much like the Deaf-sighted community asserts that ASL is the language right of all deaf children, the DeafBlind activist community asserts that Pro-Tactile ASL is the language right of all DeafBlind children. That’s why some DeafBlind friends have suggested that a DeafBlind intervener (educational aide) who is experienced with kids and fluent in Pro-Tactile ASL would be the best person to work one-on-one with a DeafBlind child.

Where can I learn more?

Last year Quartz media made this short clip about my friend Oscar using Pro-Tactile ASL at Gallaudet University. Check it out here! And here is the accompanying article that gives more details and information

Another inspiring publication is John Lee Clark’s book Where I Stand: On the Signing Community and my DeafBlind Experience (Handtype Press, 2014). I loved reading this entire book because it immersed me in the life story of a DeafBlind person as told by himself, including all his passions for literature, poetry, and parenting. In the last chapter of the book, Clark talks about the Pro-Tactile movement and how excited he is about it. However, when he published in 2014, Pro-Tactile ASL was not yet classified as a distinct language – he describes it as ASL and is not sure whether to even call it a dialect of ASL. Since the time he published, the community and academic researchers in linguistics designated Pro-Tactile ASL as a new language. If you really want to geek out on the story of the language and its linguistic components, check out Professor Terra Edwards’ dissertation available for download at this link. You can also read this short interview with her from 2011 where she explains her research. 

Enough with all the geeky academic stuff! Here is the blog of a mom who applies Pro-Tactile principles to her DeafBlind kid. This is Heather’s blog about her son Orion. There is lots of great stuff here. She is Deaf and fluent in Visual ASL, so it was easier for her to incorporate Pro-Tactile ASL into her parenting than it is for us hearing parents who don’t already know sign language. I think it’s best to learn both Visual ASL and Pro-Tactile ASL at the same time, so that we can be a bridge between our children and the larger Deaf community.

Going back to the Pro-Tactile movement, here is a video blog by the two founders Jelica Nuccio and aj Granda. There is a transcript at the bottom. It helps to read the blogs in order, from number 1 through 5. The topics can be hard to follow sometimes because they are directed towards DeafBlind adult peers who are already active in – or at least curious about – the movement. I watched the videos and read the transcripts a number of times, when went back and took notes from the transcripts so that I could keep track of topics cumulatively addressed over the series. Jelica runs an organization called Tactile Communications, where DeafBlind adults and their loved ones go to get trained in Pro-Tactile life skills and language. 

So what does this mean for our kids? Well, that’s a good question. Hopefully as the Pro-Tactile movement grows, we will have more opportunities to develop early childhood learning materials based on its principles.

For now, I can say: As a parent of a DeafBlind child, Pro-Tactile philosophy empowered me to recognize my own intuitively tactile ideas that can get trained out of us by the hyper-visual modality of mainstream Deaf spaces. With DeafBlind kids, there are many low expectations set (based on their slow language acquisition or seeming disinterest) without even realizing that the information is fundamentally inaccessible to them. I think that “accessibility” is different for kids than adults with the same DeafBlindness. With adults, accessibility is mostly about bridging content to a pre-existing motivation to access it, whereas with kids, we are actively fostering the root motivation to consider the content relevant to themselves in the first place. If the modality is not engaging to DeafBlind kids, then the content is not accessible. Pro-Tactile philosophy really helped me understand what motivates and captures the attention of my child.

Hope you found all this interesting, and maybe at least some of it tickled the brain cells towards some new ideas relevant to your child!

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