DeafBlind Communities May Be Creating a New Language of Touch

By Andrew Leland: For Complete Post, Click Here…

Protactile began as a movement for autonomy and a system of tactile communication. Now, some linguists argue, it is becoming a language of its own.

hen John Lee Clark was five years old, in 1983, he entered a small Deaf program within a public school near his home in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Clark was a dreamy kid who dressed in tucked-in button-downs and pressed slacks. He came from a large Deaf family—his father and brother are DeafBlind, his mother and sister are Deaf and sighted—and the family had communicated in American Sign Language (or A.S.L.) for generations. On Clark’s first day of kindergarten, his mother, worried, followed his school bus in her car. When she surprised him at school to ask if he was O.K., Clark said that he was fine but that the bus driver had forgotten how to speak. His mother laughed and reminded him that the driver didn’t know how to speak: she was hearing! “This is a common story among Deaf families,” Clark told me recently. “The gradual dawning that all those mutes could actually talk with one another, but in a very different way.”

In third grade, Clark began a bilingual Deaf program. Instruction was in A.S.L., but students were grouped on the basis of their ability to read English, a second language that Clark accessed only in print. “My literacy was abysmal,” he said. He still has a workbook from that time, in which he answered questions—“What is your favorite sport?” “Who are the members of your family?”—with drawings instead of in English. But he was gifted in A.S.L., and teachers would ask him for help with tricky words. He sometimes pranked them by inventing ostentatiously elaborate versions. The word “heaven” is difficult for A.S.L. learners, involving a precise looping of the hands; Clark added several gratuitous loops.

At twelve, Clark began attending a residential Deaf school, many of whose students came from Deaf families. But, around this time, he began to go blind. Hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. have some combined hearing and vision loss, but most are older adults and have spent the bulk of their lives hearing and sighted. A much smaller group—about ten thousand, according to some estimates—become DeafBlind earlier in life; a leading genetic cause is Usher syndrome. Clark, his father, and his brother have Usher, which can cause a person to be born deaf and to gradually go blind. At fourteen, Clark started to lose track of A.S.L. conversations. “I was this boy who always said, ‘Say again?,’ who might collide into you,” Clark told me. “So pathetic.” He began reading in Braille, which his father had encouraged him to learn as a child, and started walking with a white cane.

In high school, Clark stopped trying to follow A.S.L. visually and began using tactile reception, feeling words with his hands. This helped, but miscommunication was common. A.S.L. is a fundamentally visual language. The dominant-hand gestures for the words “stamp” and “fun,” for instance, look very similar, except that “stamp” begins near the mouth, whereas “fun” starts at the nose. Yes-or-no questions are signified with raised eyebrows, and sentences can be negated with a shake of the head. When Clark would reply in A.S.L., he’d have no idea how the person was responding, or whether she was still paying attention at all; he said that it was like “talking to a wall.” He attended Gallaudet, a Deaf university in Washington, D.C., with his future partner, Adrean, a sighted-Deaf artist. “It was really when I got married that I noticed more serious problems,” he told me. He would come home from the store without the items that Adrean had requested, and misunderstood the timing of their appointments: “It’d blow up on me, how that information in ASL had failed to register.”

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