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Signals For Use With Deaf-Blind People

Editor's Note: Communication takes on particular importance for people who are both deaf and blind. Some people who are born deaf, and become blind later in life, have sign language as their 'mother tongue'. Others can hear long enough to understand and learn to read English. Their preferred method of communication is often based on spelling English words -- either through the manual alphabet in which hand positions signify different letters -- or through Braille. Still others retain enough vision and/or hearing to use a primarily oral form of communication.

Whatever methods are used, the basic human need remains the same. Like all of us, deaf-blind people need to gather enough information to make sound judgments and to be able to express themselves in a way which is both understood and respected.

The following guidelines appeared in the Spring, 1996 edition of the "Blind Washingtonian", the official publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington State. Like most guidelines, they're meant to provoke thought and increase awareness. Every deaf-blind individual is a unique human being. A technique which works well for one person may be absolutely unworkable for another. However, if these guidelines encourage Canadian Monitor readers to approach deaf-blind people in their communities, the experience is almost certain to be rewarding for everyone concerned.

  1. When you approach a deaf-blind person, let the person know by a simple touch that you are near. A warm, friendly handshake will show your friendly interest.

  2. Make positive but gentle use of any means of communication that you adopt. Abrupt or exaggerated gestures might be misunderstood.

  3. Work out a simple but special signal for identifying yourself, or tell your name if the deaf-blind person prefers.

  4. Learn and use whatever kind of communication the deaf-blind person knows. If you know another means of communication that might be valuable to the person, offer to help him/her learn it.

  5. Be sure the deaf-blind person understands you, and be sure you understand him/her.

  6. Encourage the deaf-blind person to use any speech that is possible, even if it is limited to only a few words.

  7. If there are others present, let the deaf-blind person know when it is appropriate to talk.

  8. Inform him/her of the whereabouts of others present.

  9. Tell the deaf-blind person when you leave, even if it is only for a brief period. See that he/she is comfortable and safely situated. If the deaf-blind person is not sitting, provide something substantial for him/her to touch before you leave. Never abandon a deaf-blind person in unfamiliar surroundings.

  10. In walking, let him/her take your arm. Never push a deaf-blind person ahead of you.

  11. Make use of a simple set of signals to let him/her know when you are about to (a) ascend a flight of stairs, (b) descend a flight of stairs, (c) walk through a doorway, or (d) board a vehicle. A deaf-blind person holding your arm can usually sense any change in pace or direction.

  12. Encourage deaf-blind persons to use their own initiative and abilities. Encourage them to express their own ideas. Encourage their interest in new experiences.

  13. Rely on your natural courtesy, consideration, and common sense. Avoid getting flustered or irritated if misunderstandings arise. Occasional difficulties in communication are only to be expected with all people, not just the deaf-blind.