Through the Hands of Tori


By Ashley Norkus, Hands & Voices of Pennsylvania

...children who are born both deaf and blind experience much more than a combination of hearing and vision loss.

For many of our deaf children, sight is the sense through which they learn. When hearing is compromised, even children who are learning to listen and speak use visual cues from books and their sight to view an object or learn the vocabulary word for it. Victoria Johnson (“Tori”) is a little girl who does not have either. Tori is a deafblind child with amazing spirit and determination. Her mom, Jen, also has the persistence to help Tori succeed. 

Deafblindness, by definition, is a combination of hearing loss and visual impairment. As with hearing loss, children who are deaf/blind have a variety of hearing levels as well as a variety of visual abilities. Some children are totally blind, while others have some vision. Sometimes vision loss happens later in childhood or early adulthood. But children who are born both deaf and blind experience much more than a combination of hearing and vision loss. The dual impairment affects every aspect of functioning. Many of their “behaviors,” as often called by people who are not familiar with deafblindness, are not behaviors at all but an expressive form of communication. Without the language to express wants and needs, children who are deafblind will communicate through touch, which is sometimes in the form of hitting. This unconventional communication method is often misunderstood. One sense that is intact for deaf/blind children is their sense of touch. Therefore, this is the only reliable mode through which they can receive information. The information coming in through their ears, even with high tech hearing aids and cochlear implants, is limited. The information coming in though their sense of sight is not the full picture.

Tori sees the world through what is described as ‘Swiss cheese’. She has pockets of vision that she can see through but the picture is not whole. For her to receive information through her eyes is exhausting. Since she is also profoundly deaf, she is learning to communicate through sign language. However, she often can only see part of a sign but does not see the entire sign. Tactile signing, or the use of putting her hands on top of the signers’ hands, is a way for her to feel the information coming in through a sense that is fully functioning, her sense of touch. Tactile signing makes communication a whole body experience for children and adults who cannot receive information through traditional means. For Tori, her sense of touch provides her the opportunity to interact with others in a meaningful way. She has learned that these signs have meaning and purpose and allow her to learn a way to communicate in a conventional way. Tactile signing gives her a voice. 

There are several forms of tactile signing including hand over hand signing, co-active signing and print on palm. Tori is being introduced to hand over hand signing to facilitate the visual signs that she already knows. Hand over hand tactile signing involves the deafblind individual placing their hands on top of the signer’s hands. The signer forms the signs in the typical way as though communicating with a sighted deaf person and the deafblind individual feels the signs and gains information through the hands.

Within the first few trials of receiving tactile signs, Tori was reaching her hands out looking for the signs. She was able to make the connection quickly that her hands were getting information through my hands. She clearly was interested in the process of tactile signing and was able to answer questions and gain information through her hands. This is a huge step for a deafblind child. She has already identified her hands as her means of gathering information. Tori is also able to use one hand to receive signs and her other hand to answer the question. She has come so far in such a short period of time because of the access she now has to her world. Helen Keller became so successful because she was given the “key” to her world which was the use of sign language through tactile means. The opportunities for deafblind children are expand greatly when they are given the proper access to communication modalities which suit their needs. ~

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