Communication Barriers in Children with Deaf-blindness

The issue

Deaf-blindness is low incidence population referring to a combined hearing and vision loss that severely limits access to communication, development of concepts and emotions, and education.  The term “deaf-blind” is often misconceived as a complete absence of hearing and sight, when actually, there are various degrees of hearing and vision loss  It is imperative that educators and parents have a significant amount of resources for training and support to provide the child with deaf-blindness the opportunity to access education, communication, and the world around them.  One area of concern for children who are deafblind is communication.

Communication for children who are deafblind can be thought of as a holistic model for teaching concepts, supporting bonding, interaction, and language.  Deaf-blind children often experience difficulties with communication skills resulting in a restriction of information affecting their ability to understand their environment.  When there are communication breakdowns, children with deaf-blindness develop feelings of detachment or isolation from society.  They may withdraw, and in many instances, and in many cases become depressed, develop a lack of trust, and feel a loss of control over their lives as well as a sense of diminished quality of life.  Deaf-blind students preparing to leave school are often unprepared to live independently or seek further education or employment.  Most have very few experiences within their communities and feel they are a burden to their families greatly reducing their level of self-esteem, confidence, and self-determination.

What we know

Various types of communication modes are employed according to the individual’s sensory history, physical abilities, cognitive abilities, culture, and personal characteristics.  However, inaccessible environments and limited activities and experiences may reduce the range of topics and common interests with others.  A second factor is the ability or skills of their communication partner, attitudes and accessibility barriers.  Also, successful communication strategies are generally individualized and finding these individual strategies can take an extended amount of time and they can also evolve diversely with changes that occur within the sensory system.  The types of communication modes typically used by those who are deaf-blind include:

  • Sign Language-Sign Language is a visually perceived language based on a system of articulated hand gestures and their placement relative to the body, along with non-manual markers such as facial expressions, head movements, shoulder raises, mouth morphemes, and movements of the body.
  • Symbols-Symbols represent events, actions, objects, people, or places and can be used to communicate about these representations both receptively and expressively.
  • Picture Exchange Communication– allows people with little or no communication abilities to communicate using pictures.
  • Tactile Sign Language-Tactile sign language is a method of receiving sign language and/or fingerspelling by placing one’s hands over a communication partner’s hands to feel their shape and movement.
  • Face to Face Communication Systems-refers to a Screen Braille Communicator which is a small, portable device that enables people who are deafblind to communicate with sighted people who may not know braille. One side of the device has a braille keyboard and the other side has an alphabetic keyboard and visual display.
  • Haptics-is a branch of nonverbal communication (not a language) that refers to a system of interaction via the sense of touch. Places of articulation for haptic communication are the back, the upper arm, the hand, the knee, and the foot.
  • Pro-tactile-borrows bits and pieces of ASL and adapting these bits to convey information using the perceiver’s hands and body.

What we don’t know and Implications

While research continues around deaf-blindness and communication, currently, we know very little about the amount or type of training received by professionals who work with those who are deafblind in the area of communication or education.  There is a movement to establish certification for teachers of children with deaf-blindness in the United States.  As of 2019, a few programs have been discovered that offer certification for teachers of students with severe and multiple disabilities, graduate certificate programs in deaf-blindness which usually entails 3 to 4 courses at best, and other certification programs for teaching students with vision loss or hearing loss with concentrated course work for deaf-blindness embedded into them.  Today’s schools are not prepared to help children who are deafblind, deaf or hard of hearing, blind, or visually impaired develop to their full potential, and without the passing of the legislation.  Until that time, it is unknown as to whether our children with deaf-blindness will live an independent life and be able to fully access communication, or continue to live in isolation.

Posted on June 25, 2020 by
Angel Perez
The College of New Jersey

Further reading