More than just a seat at the table

How can we apply Pro-Tactile philosophy to social mealtimes with our DeafBlind kids?

Two 7-year-old girls sit on adjacent but different sides of a rectangular table, about 2.5 feet away from each other, eating mini ice cream cones. Kamirah (Deaf-sighted) is on the right and she is looking at the camera and smiling and flashing a cool kid v sign. Oona (DeafBlind) is on the left of the frame, she is eating her ice cream and looking straight ahead of her, unaware that the photo is being taken.
Oona and Kamirah sit on adjacent sides of a rectangular table, eating mini ice cream cones.

This month I am taking an online course on Pro-Tactile philosophy with DeafBlind poet and community leader John Lee Clark. If you read my earlier post introducing Pro-Tactile American Sign Language, then you may recall that I enthusiastically recommended his autobiographical work Where I Stand: On the Signing Community and my DeafBlind Experience (Handtype Press, 2014) as an introduction to DeafBlind culture. Check out this glowing review by deaf sci-fi author Kristen Ringman.

Back to the topic at hand: how do we convene at the dinner table, or any seated conversational space, with our DeafBlind kids? So often, the physical dimensions and layout of conventional sitting furniture make it difficult for DeafBlind people to maintain tactile contact even with the person sitting right next to them – let alone being able to touch everyone gathered around the table! This is just one of the many lessons I learned from our first reading in John Lee Clark’s Pro-tactile philosophy class: his essay entitled “My Dream House.”

The entire essay is about one thousand words and encompasses numerous ideas for a Pro-Tactile home environment, including vibrating floor panels, rounded corners, roll-top cabinet doors, and sensors that automatically turn off water taps. John also includes a fascinating aside on DeafBlind people being hyper-vigilant about cleanliness because their mind’s eye probes all the nooks and crannies that are literally “out of sight, out of mind” for sighted people. However, from the practical perspective of parenting a DeafBlind child, I was most interested in the part of his essay where John talks about furniture and conversational spaces.

He writes:

“Regarding furniture, it’s amazing what they say about a culture. Take the love seat. The way it’s designed makes a clear picture of two people sitting side by side, looking at something, not each other. An expression of phonocentric culture if there ever was one! A Pro-Tactile love seat would be very different, having the two sitters face each other, thigh against thigh, almost hip to hip. To support three-way or four-way tactile conversations, we’d have a nifty kind of plush chair that can be easily moved around, whose C-shaped backs can at once support the back and an arm. Four of these can be placed, like the petals of a flower, around an upholstered “conversation table.” We also won’t have the traditional big dining table, which moves everyone beyond tactile contact. Instead, food and people would switch places, with people on the inside and food outside. A U-shaped table can be used, so that everyone’s food is either behind them or at their side, but not in the way of tactile conversation. This also makes it much easier to serve food, without trying to move plates and cups through the forest of happy arms and hands. Restaurants hate us because we always screw up their floor plan.”

At my mom’s house where we previously lived for three years, she happens to have a round table. The shape of the table and the placement of the legs made it easy to sit very close to Oona: next to her but a bit turned towards her at same time, because of the curvature of the table. She has a chair with a foot rest and I would put my feet on her foot rest and then she would put her feet on top of mine. Sometimes she would put her legs across my lap. The round table allowed this angle – like she could face the table while still being turned slightly sideways to put her feet in my lap. This was obviously not a perfect Pro-Tactile set up but at least the round table let us angle ourselves a little more fluidly. She could not access the rest of the people at the table, however. So we would often switch who was sitting right next to her at various points throughout the meal.

We moved recently and a friend loaned us a square table. We were so relieved to avoid furniture shopping on craigslist that I did not think about this table’s implications for tactile interfacing with Oona at mealtimes. However, I did immediately notice that something was off in comparison to the round table. If we are sitting on the same side of the square, then we get the loveseat effect that John described above: we are rigidly positioned side-by-side, both facing the same straight edge of the table. If I sit close but on the other side of the corner, that improves our ability to angle our bodies towards each other, but then we have a sharp corner jutting out between us plus a table leg. It really is annoying from a Pro-Tactile perspective, and thankfully the first assignment for John’s Pro-Tactile philosophy class pushed me to think through it.

Upon further reflection, Oona does not put her feet in our lap anymore, now that we have this square table. I tend to sit “around the corner” from her, perhaps because it is better from my sighted perspective of having our faces visually angled towards each other. However, recently when we had a friend seated on the 3rd side of the table, I pulled my chair over next to Oona so that I could maintain eye contact with my friend as I was helping Oona with her dinner intermittently. Oona was very pleased and embraced me a couple times during the meal. I guess she missed us sitting so close. I will have to ask her about her preferences the next time we sit together at the square table!

So what are the long-term implications of these aha! moments I narrated above? Beyond returning to a round table for its clear merits over the square table,  I am starting to think about more creative solutions we could incorporate into a future home. John’s description of the movable sectioned plush chair with the U-shaped food table definitely makes sense: a sort of inverted table arrangement where the utile tabletop space surrounds the cluster of tactile communicators. I am starting to think about how that concept would accommodate DeafBlind kids of different sizes and developmental stages. Considering that we buy special high chairs for typically abled small children who are learning to eat independently, what kind of equivalent equipment could be created for DeafBlind kids who need access to tactile communication while eating? Should the position of the tray be altered, in the case of a DeafBlind toddler’s high chair?

Clearly there are many exciting options that come to mind, once we simply open our mind to the options and give ourselves permission to critique the default designs available to us. However, I will close with John’s words that put this entire exercise into important context.

John concludes his essay: “We don’t just need DeafBlind Space because there are problems to be solved. Those problems need to be solved, and I’ve offered preliminary ideas… We need DeafBlind Space because it’s about power and respect—and learning more about who we are. It’s about ownership, belonging, and making ourselves even more at home.”

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