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What is Tactile Signing?

Matthew F.
Matthew F.

Deaf people often communicate through sign language, while blind people use their hands to gain a clearer understanding of sizes, shapes and feelings. But the deafblind, those with both impaired vision and hearing, use tactile signing to communicate.

Tactile signing is a combination of the sign language of the deaf and the interaction of the blind, and involves many forms of deaf and blind communication. Tactile signing's most common and most illustrative method is hand-over-hand signing, which is based on the standard manual sign system. In this method, the hands of the receiver (the deafblind) are placed on the hands of the signer to perceive the sign acted out. In this way, the receiver is feeling and reading the signs and communicating through the hands of the signer.

Many deaf people use sign language to communicate.
Many deaf people use sign language to communicate.

Tactile signing has many subtle differences from standard sign language to make communication easier for the impaired person. Signs normally made in the air, for example, are made on the body to allow the receiver to feel them. Signs made with small movements of the fingers are sometimes exaggerated or extended to the whole hand to allow them to be more easily read.

Co-active signing is an offspring of this hand-over-hand method of tactile signing. It is practiced by a sender moving the hands of a receiver, often a child, to teach them signs. Another common method is print-on-palm, which allows the receiver to read the letters being signed onto their hand.

Tactile signing has many forms and varying levels of difficulty and practice, depending on the situation of the impaired person. It is often used to make the language of manual signs accessible to children who are deaf and vision impaired. A person born only deaf, who lost vision later in life, would likely have a knowledge of signing and therefore could outwardly communicate their thoughts, but would still rely on touch when communicating with other people.

Tactile sign language, which can be traced as far back as 1648 in Britain, has allowed the deaf or blind and many with varying degrees of either disability to communicate in an atmosphere most reliant on communication. Whether it be teaching children or the cognitively disabled, tactile signing is an exercise of both the singer's and receiver's patience and memory, and, with methods like on-body signing, makes communication a whole body experience for those unable to do so through traditional methods.

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Discussion Comments


@Iluviaporos - Unfortunately it's one of those things that you really have to have a human teacher willing to work one on one with you, because you can't really learn in a classroom setting otherwise. Both the deaf and the blind have means to learn in groups if their needs are catered for, but the deaf-blind need more intensive education and that's expensive.

Tactile sign language should be taught more universally, I believe, so that it can become less expensive to give to those who need it.


@KoiwiGal - That's still the case for a lot of people in the world. I saw a documentary recently about someone traveling to Uganda to teach sign language and many of his students were adults who had never had a chance to talk with the people around them. If you add blindness to that (which must happen very often, particularly with older people) then you would end up with someone who likely wouldn't have a chance to live long, or participate in community at all if they did.

Helen Keller was a very important figure because she demonstrated what a tragedy it is that some people are caught in that kind of hell for most, or all, of their lives.

I think it's most unfortunate that this still happens in many parts of the world because there just isn't anyone there to teach tactile sign language.


I recently read Helen Keller's autobiography and it really made me sad about the fact that tactile signing hasn't been around all that long, particularly for the majority of people who needed it.

I mean, it used to be fairly common for people to become blind and deaf because there were far more diseases and conditions that we weren't able to control like we can today.

Without tactile signing there was just no way for deaf/blind people to communicate in the slightest degree with the others around them, or to understand even a little about what was happening.

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    • Many deaf people use sign language to communicate.
      By: lawcain
      Many deaf people use sign language to communicate.