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Guidelines for Working/Playing with Deaf-Blind People

by: Theresa B. Smith

Courtesy / Guiding / Communication / Interpreting / Summary / Acknowledgements

Deaf-blind people are individuals. They have different backgrounds, different likes and dislikes, different talents and different vices. The keys to dealing with deaf-blind people as in dealing with all people are: COURTESY, FLEXIBILITY and COMMON SENSE. What follows is, therefore, a list of guidelines or suggestions to be considered and applied to specific situations.


1. When you approach a deaf-blind person let them know by a gentle touch on the hand that you are near. Touching the hand is less startling than a touch on the back or arm. Do not "hit and run." Tapping makes them look for your hands again. If you touch their hands gently and slide your hands underneath theirs, they will know that you want to communicate.

2. Identify yourself every time you meet. Even if they are partially sighted or usually know the touch of your hand, it is always nice to be reassured. It also saves possible confusion and embarrassment (yours and theirs). Perhaps you can work out a simple but special signal for quickly identifying yourself (a name sign).

3. Don't ever play the "Who am I" game. It is aggravating in the extreme. "Do you remember me? We met at ... (don't you) remember?" is also irksome. Assume they do not remember you, then be pleasantly surprised if they do.

4. When talking with a deaf-blind friend, do not tease by poking, tickling, jostling etc. unless they know it's coming. Have you ever been startled by an unexpected slap on the back or a poke in the ribs? Hearing and vision are "distance senses." They warn us of what is coming, even from nearby.

5. Be flexible about communication. They may not fit your preconceived idea of how deaf-blind people communicate, so be open not dogmatic. The basic questions are about modality, primary language, and fluency. If you don't know them, start with tactile, medium speed, modified ASL. This is the "default" position. As they respond, you can naturally modify your communication to make it more clear and comfortable for you both.

6. Respect the person. Communication takes longer and is often very difficult for them, but it is essential to their dignity. Do not move their hand for him, put them into a chair, grip their thumb when signing (so that their hand does not slip off) or otherwise treat them like an object.

7. If a deaf-blind person is alone in a room let them know if  a) you will be going in and out,  a) you have come in to work, or c) you are leaving. It is embarrassing to belch or adjust a bra strap and then find out someone was there. It is embarrassing, too, to ask a question only to find out you are talking to thin air. We all need to know when we are alone (and have our privacy) and when we are not. We all need times when we are certainly alone and can fully relax.

8. If you are in a deaf-blind person's home do not use your vision to snoop or spy.

9. Think of partial vision as useful but totally unreliable. Tunnel or other kinds of partial vision can be confusing and may mistakenly lead others to assume the affected can see more or better than they actually do. Whenever possible  a) describe what you are talking about clearly, b) let them touch it rather than merely point at it. If their field of vision is very small it is hard for them to locate objects visually.

Moving objects or things that are far away, are especially hard to find visually. Even once they have located it, they may have trouble focusing.

10. Take them to the object itself and let them touch it. It will help them focus, thereby letting them actually see it better, too. They will get more information from touching it, as well.

11. Guide their hand to objects by leading with yours. Let their hand rest lightly on the back of your hand as you move it slowly towards what you want to touch. When you make contact, slowly slip your hand out from underneath. This works for objects you want to show them for whatever reason. It might be just so they can explore it, or it might be a handrail on the stairs, or even a drink or snack.

12. If you visit a deaf-blind person's home, be sure to leave things as they are. Poor vision makes it even easier to spill or knock things over. You can imagine "finding" a glass of water on a previously bare counter, or "coming across" a chair that is (surprise!) away from the table. It is also frustrating and time consuming to have to look for knitting you left "right there." Half open doors or cupboards are a particularly painful hazard. Please be sure that they are completely opened or completely closed.

13. Don't worry about messiness. That comes from doing things without sight. Relax and enjoy. You can be messier, too.

14. Remember to communicate about what you are doing. Don't just move them or hand them objects without an explanation. They will know how to reach for it, or cooperate by stepping back if they understand what is going on. If you must move them suddenly for safety, explain the reasons for your actions afterward.

15. Consider expense when planning outings or thinking of gifts. Poverty is often a factor. Many deaf-blind people are either unemployed or work at low paying jobs. The result is that they often have little or no money for "extras."

16. Offer help if it looks appropriate. It hurts to always have to ask. For the same reason try to be unobtrusive and subtle in the giving of help.

17. Ask them to join you in your tasks. Assume they are as willing to walk as anyone of their age, as willing and able to carry things as anyone of their size and build. Silly as it is, we sometimes think of deaf-blind people as fragile, and we hesitate to ask them to walk far or help us carry things. Unless the deaf-blind person is very old or has another disability, they will probably enjoy both the exercise and the opportunity to join you and to share life's chores with you. On the other hand, if they have been forced into a very sedentary life by their blindness, start slowly until they have had an opportunity to get in shape.

18. Do let the deaf-blind person think for themselves. Give them options. Give them as much information as possible, then let them make the decisions on their own. Do not make assumptions that they are hungry or not hungry, etc. Don't cut their meat, etc. without first offering. Give them time to think about it. A pause of a few seconds may well mean they are considering, not that they have no idea. If they have little or no experience of the option, see if you can try a little of each and then have time to consider.

19. Personal items such as wallets, purses, and keys should not be touched unless you are asked.. A deaf-blind person can handle their own money, pay their check, open their own doors, etc. They may ask you to take the money to the cashier, or they may prefer to go with you to the cashier. But they probably will get the money out themselves.

Along this line of thought, be sure not to move their coat, cane etc. without first telling them. Even if you hang it up for them, tell them where, so that when they are ready to leave they know where their things are and do not have to find you or ask someone to look for them.

20. Do not be offended or discouraged if the deaf-blind person asks to go home or seems to be unenthusiastic about suggested plans. Isolation and loneliness are surely the central facts of deaf-blind. There is a hunger for human companionship. Deaf-blind people, therefore, treasure true friends. Understanding this, we must still recognize that the best of friends are not always welcome. There are times when we are exhausted, when we have other plans, when we have chores that must be done, etc.

21. Plan things in advance so they know what to expect and can plan accordingly. Being deaf-blind requires more organization and planning than being sighted and hearing. It also lets them enjoy the anticipation of a pleasant event or allay any unnecessary fears. Try not to make last minute changes. If for any reason plans must change, explain the situation and plan another get-together soon.

22. Consider everything you say to be a promise and follow through. We often make simple statements that are really promises such as "I'll stop by tomorrow on my way home." "I'll be right back." "I want you to come over for dinner some time." Sometimes we don't really mean "tomorrow" but "soon." Sometimes we already know we can't do what we say we will, but we wish we could. For someone who cannot drive, has limited access to phone and bus, has a small circle of friends, this is especially disappointing.

23. Respect the deaf-blind person's privacy and dignity. Do not ask very personal questions unless you are close friends. Do not pass on information you may know about them without their knowledge and permission.

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Guiding is not really difficult. Just remember that you are two people wide. The cardinal rules of guiding are:

  • pay attention.
  • take your time.
  • be consistent.
  • when in doubt, talk it over.

Pay Attention

One of the easiest ways to walk someone into a pole or low branch is to be looking at something else (like a friend across the way). There are many things in the environment to distract us, and we are very used to our own body size. It takes conscious attention, however, to walk safely when we suddenly double that.

Take Your Time

It is harder to change at the last minute, to compensate for a difference in the surface such as bumps, ramps or hoses across the path. If, however, you are walking at a moderate to slow, steady pace, there is time. Balance is better too.

This also refers to taking time to discuss things, to inform the deaf-blind person of what is there, or any unusual sights that catch your eye. If you are tempted to look away at something, pause to do so. Tell them about it. Don't rush on.

Be Consistent

Both guiding and following a guide take mental energy. It is more relaxing for you both if your guiding is consistent. When your pace is steady until you come to steps, ramps, etc. this lets the deaf-blind person know they can cruise, coming to attention when your pace changes. It's the same idea when you use the same signals time after time to mean the same thing. They can interpret what they mean without really having to think about it. Consistency also lets you both predict more easily. All of this makes for a smoother trip.

When in Doubt, Talk it Over

Sometimes you look at an aisle and you are just not sure whether or not you can both fit through. Pause and say so. Sometimes, you see a choice between a few steps and a ramp and you're not sure which to use. Ask.

Specific Points

1. In walking let them take your arm. Never "handle" them or push them ahead of you. They will walk slightly behind vou, and your natural body movements will be enough to let them know you are turning, etc.

2. Walk at a normal, steady pace. Slow down for irregularities like bumps, ramps, or other changes in the surface. This will alert them so that they can use their cane, look at the ground, or not; but in any event, they will be expecting some change and not be surprised.

3. Stairs. Let them use the handrail on the stairs. Many deaf-blind people have poor balance. Often simply pausing at the beginning of the stairs is enough. They will slide their foot forward, feel the step, and look for the handrail. If they need more information or help, and if they are guiding on your right elbow, gently take their hand with your left hand and place it on the handrail.

If they expect the stairs, you can often simply approach at a normal pace, make a slight pause, take the first step, pause again, then proceed; the deaf-blind person can tell from your body whether the stairs go up or down. Sometimes you can approach the stairs so that their outside arm slightly touches the railing. Make sure you are set before proceeding.

4. Escalators. Let them know you are getting on one before you do so. Approach as you would stairs, pausing for them to grasp the handrail and locate the steps. Step onto the escalator with a decisive, but not rushed, step.

5. Stops.  Let them know why you've stopped. There are many times you will have to stop or pause - at steps, curbs, waiting for a light, waiting for an elevator, avoiding pedestrians, waiting in line. If it is not immediately obvious why you are pausing, especially if they look puzzled or curious, it is nice to let them know the reason for the pause.

6. Doors.  Doors can be tricky. The guide always goes through first.

  • Pushing through the door when it opens away from you is usually easy enough.
  • When the door opens toward you on their side, pull it back and hand it to them.
  • When the door opens toward you on your side, signal them to get behind you (see "narrowing spaces" below), open the door and go on through.

7. Narrow spaces.  Signal the narrowing and move slower. Pulling your elbow closer to and slightly behind you or putting your arm across your waist behind your back. will indicate that the space is narrowing and that they should move behind you. Some deaf-blind people will put their hand on your shoulder, some will leave it on your elbow.

8. Vehicles.  When getting into a vehicle, you can place your hand on the door handle, slide yours out from underneath, letting them open the door, enter, and close the door on them own. If the door is already open, place one of their hands on the roof edge and their other hand on top of the door or the back of the seat. If you want them to get into the back seat of a two-door car, you should let them know, as otherwise this will be confusing. You should also tell them if it is a van, SUV, crossover, or any other unusual circumstance.

9. Seating.  In guiding a deaf-blind person to a free standing chair, simply place their hand on the back or arm of the chair. Entering booths in restaurants or table/chair combinations place their hand on the table edge and slide it in the direction you wish them to go. For theater style seats, it is easiest to lead into the row to the two vacant seats, place their hand on the arm rest and sit down. For other trickier seats such as stools, explain the situation first, then place their hand on it.

10. Keep them informed. It is easy to forget that the deaf-blind person does not automatically know why everyone has to move now, or that you have stopped at the store first on your way to the meeting. Remember to tell the deaf-blind person where you are and who is present. Vision gives us context with which to understand what we hear. It is important to interpret what people say, but remember to fill in some of the visual context, too, as you can. Telling them about incidentals is nice even when it has nothing to do with what people are saying. It gives the trip some texture or color.

11. NEVER just abandon a deaf-blind person! This doesn't mean you have to take them home, it does mean vou should talk about it. Expect that leaving will take some time. It's a good idea to let them know when you arrive the approximate time you will be leaving. That lets them plan better and, if they are saving a piece of juicy news for you, or if they know that they want to be dropped off at a different place than usual, they can figure the timing. If you are just chatting at a party, you might check to see if there is anyone else they would like to talk with, or any particular place they would like to be (for example on the couch).

12. If you are escorting a deaf-blind person, always tell them when you are leaving for a bit. (e.g. to go to the bathroom, to chat with someone else while they are busy). Don't just walk off. They may want to sit down. If they are not sitting, they may need something substantial to touch (to keep their bearings) while you are gone. At least try to find a spot where they will not be standing in the midst of pedestrian traffic, sitting in the blazing sun, or waiting in some other uncomfortable place. When you first arrive, see that they know where they are, who is there, etc.

13. When accompanying a deaf-blind person, keep sufficiently close so that by physical contact they will know you are there, or at least keep an eye on them in case they seem to be looking for you. Often this is "knee to knee" or "toe to toe" while you are seated.

14. Do not try to watch signs and attend to the environment at the same time. Some deaf-blind people enjoy talking - signing while walking. There will be moments, however, when you must attend to traffic or whatever. A simple squeeze of their hand or the "wait"' sign will let them know they must wait a moment. Let them know when all is clear and you are free to listen/talk again. Talking while going up or down stairs or while crossing a street is not a good idea. You need your eyes and concentration at these times.

15. If you are talking or walking and you are interrupted by someone, let the deaf-blind person know why you stopped. Interpret conversations, if possible, and try to include them in the conversation. If that is not possible, excuse yourself and return to the deaf-blind person. It is very annoying to have to stand by in ignorance while your friend chats at length with someone else.

  • Do remember that you are their eyes and ears. When time permits, let them know about "the news" like buildings going up, shops closing, new landscaping projects, etc. that you have noticed on your drives through town.

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Communication: a link, union, bridge, closeness, attachment. confluence, interinvolvement enlightenment, awakening, benefaction, presence, celebration, communion, sacrament.

Communication with a deaf-blind person is a very individual thing. The best way to communicate will depend on:

  • active or primary language (ASL, English, or something else)
  • their reliance primarily on hearing, vision, or touch for input
  • how fluent or comfortable they are in communicating
  • the environment - specifically lighting, glare, noise and echo.

Regardless of the person's native language, you will have to adjust your way of communicating. In general, it will have to be a little slower, a little extra clear, and more thought will have to be given to   a) the physical environment   b) the context and   c) organization of your thoughts.

Language and Modality

1. When meeting a deaf-blind person for the first time, take your time to let them show vou how to communicate best. They may prefer to touch your hands while you sign, or they may ask you to move to take better advantage of the light, or their "better ear."

  • They may be a highly skilled communicator, fluent in ASL and more English ways of signing, and used to reading signs tactually from many different people.
  • They may read signs visually in good light and tactually in dimly-lit areas.
  • They may be more comfortable with one language or the other (i.e. ASL, or a more English way of signing with lots of fingerspelling). They may read signs tactually all the time, or visually all the time.
  • They may even be new to signing and fairly isolated. Some deaf-blind people were not born deaf, but have gradually lost their hearing. Like other deafened people, they are trying, as adults, to learn to sign and how to cope with the disability all at once. As they lose their hearing (in addition to their vision) they may lose their job, contact with old friends and workmates, possibly even having to move to a new area. The combination of losses and required new skills can be overwhelming. In this case they will understand best when communication is brief, slow and well organized. (Make especially sure that the topic and context are clear and that information flows in a predictable, logical order.) In any case, it may take a little time to get used to your particular way of communicating, your hands and unique way of talking about things. As you gain experience, you will learn how to modify your signs for deaf-blind people. Select what you say to be particularly interesting, and relevant to them. Speed will come with time. Focus on respect and clarity.


1. There will always be a certain amount of guesswork on the part of the deal-blind person listening to us. At this time, there is no natural language that is tactile. Natural languages are spoken (e.g. English, Russian) and those that are signed (e.g. ASL, LSQ), are not accessible to a person who is deaf and blind. Any tactile communication is an adaptation of a spoken/signed language. There are some ways we can change the organization of what we say, to make it more clear.

2. Make sure the topic is clear. State it first. Once they know "what you are talking about" your point will be much more clear.

3. Identify the time frame early. When you are using PSE, the verbs don't have tense, and it is easy to get confused about when it is that you are talking about. Make sure you are clear about the timeframe in which all this happened before you go too far.

4. Make sure it is clear to whom, what, or where your pronouns refer. Some of this is quite obvious. "Put it over there." requires some indication of what "it" is and where "there" is.

5. Preface comments with important background information. This context helps us to be more clear, too. For example: to say "Please move," or "We all have to move now," is more clear if they know the reason. Are they the only one being asked to move? Is it to accommodate the interpreter? Is it to accommodate a larger-than-expected crowd? Is it so they can widen the aisle to move something past? Will we move right back? Beyond this, having the context (e.g. there is a bigger than expected crowd) will not only help them to understand the immediate request to move, but it will help them understand later comments better, too (e.g. "They ran out of refreshments before I got there."). Finally, knowing it helps them both understand how to move the chair, and to feel more a part of the group.

6. Give verbal context, too. I'm sure you have had the experience of hearing only the punch line to a joke and not getting the humor. Sometimes what you have to say requires some background. It may be a summary of what others have been saying. It may be some information that most of us know simply because we have hearing or vision (e.g. a popular TV show) but which they may be missing.

7. If you must sign slower than usual, don't eliminate the pauses. They, too, are an important part of the communication. They should be proportionate. If you are signing slower, pauses should be longer. Rhythm is an important part of communication.

8. Be careful which shortcuts you take. Be sure your condensed messages are still clear. When communication is slow, it is easier to get confused.

9. Repetition or restatement is often good. Actually, the point is redundancy, or having several ways of getting the same information. This is especially true of key points.


10. Each time they reach out their hand (even slightly) for some response, give one. Your response might be a "yes" or "yeah" or an open handed palm up "What can I say?" in place of a head nod, a grin, or shrugged shoulders.

11. You must interrupt to let them know if you're lost and/or not understanding. You must give them occasional "yes" signs to let them know you understand. If you check as you go along, you will learn to read each other better with subtler cues, and your communication will get easier.

12. Some people use special signals for these responses: a light pat or two for an "um hm;" your hand resting on their arm raises and rests again gently patting. Two or three firmer pats signal "yes;" one firm pat for "no." This type of signaling is mostly used with deaf-blind people that use their voice or speech rather than signing to talk.

13. If they begin holding tighter, or squeezing slightly, this often means they are having difficulty understanding. Slow down and use pauses to see if that helps.

14. Include other people's reactions. This, too, is feedback.

Accommodating Vision/Hearing Differences

15. If they are watching visually, sign smaller. Central vision is always best, whether a person has tunnel vision, or simply very blurry vision. While it is almost always better to sign a little slower a little smaller and a little higher, distance will vary.

16. For deaf-blind people with tunnel vision:

  • touch their hand to get their attention.
  • make sure the lighting is on you, and not in their eyes.
  • make sure you're in a good position for them (close enough or far enough back); they can help you by telling you where they understand best.
  • keep your signing confined to a small area near your face. You can get some idea of how big their tunnel of good vision is by watching their eyes. When you sign, do they look at your eyes or your hands? How much do their eyes have to move to follow your hands?

17. For people with blurry vision:

  • your approach will usually be enough to signal your intent to talk.
  • make sure the lighting is on you, and not in their eyes.
  • make sure the lighting is on the "front" of your hands (i.e. if you are right handed the light should be slightly from your left and vice versa).
  • make sure you're close enough.
  • sign somewhat slowly, especially fingerspelling.
  • keep your signing confined to a small area near your face.

18. If they are listening tactually:

  • sign somewhat lower than usual; this will conserve their energy and yours. Or, rest your hands on your lap, the table, etc. when the opportunity arises.
  • give feedback; remember, they cannot see smiles and nods of understanding or frowns of puzzlement. This feedback is an important part of communication. (See below.)

19. If they are listening auditorilly:

  • they may have a "better" ear, sit where they can use it.
  • try to sit away from the music or other noise.
  • conversations with one person at a time are easier to follow than group conversations even though they hear pretty well.

Further Considerations

20. Lighting is very important to good vision for partially-sighted people. Lighting should be bright, but without glare. It should be shining on you, with no shadows on your face or signing hand. Be sure the deaf-blind person does not have the sun or a bright light in their eyes; these can make any remaining vision useless. You can always ask if they are comfortable or would prefer the shade pulled, lights dimmed, etc. Avoid sitting where glare from white surfaces, water, etc. will reflect in their face.

21. Make sure you are seated comfortably. If you are signing tactually, make sure you have support for your back. Leaning forward will cause a backache very quickly. Moving in very close, and using chair arms or pillows is often helpful. It's a good idea to raise one leg above the other by resting it on a little stool, a chair rung, etc.

22. Make sure you are on the same level. It is tiring to sign for a long time with one person seated and the other standing. For longer conversations both of you should be sitting or standing.

23. If you are signing two-handed, it is probably most comfortable to sit facing one another with your knees interlocking. If you're signing or fingerspelling one-handed, it is comfortable to sit at an angle (45-90 degrees). It is less tiring than being side by side. You will find a position that is comfortable for both of you, but it is important not to be too shy to move in close enough. Experiment. Discuss it.

24. For tactile signing, use strong but gentle motions. Their hands on yours may make you feel restricted. Try to keep your signs crisp and clear, firm without being abrupt or wild.

25. When signing, don't duck your head and shoulders down to make a sign. The placement and orientation of your hands are important (e.g. father/mother, fine/Russian, taste/sick). Hunching also cramps your signs, making them small, and hard to understand while making you more tired.

26. If their hands are heavy it may mean they are tired, or it may mean they are having a hard time following you. Some people squeeze or hang on when they are not understanding. Try slowing down and checking to be sure your pauses are long enough to help clarity.

27. Sign right handed or left handed but don't switch back and forth mid-paragraph. People who sign well use both hands, switching back and forth in beautiful rhythm. If the deaf-blind person is using one hand to listen and the signer switches, then part of the message is missed. Sometimes the hand on yours listening makes it feel "full" and you automatically start signing with the other.

28. Some deaf-blind people prefer fingerspelling only. How they read this fingerspelling is very individual. Some read it very rapidly, some do not. Usually, they will shift their hand to where it is comfortable for them. Again, respect and clarity are the most important. Speed will come.

29. If you are signing PSE and must fingerspell often, shift the position of your hand before fingerspelling a word. This shift moves your hand slightly further under theirs. It places their hand in a somewhat better position for reading fingerspelling and it also signals the switch to fingerspelling.

30. Whether you are spelling continuously or mixing fingerspelling with signing, your wrist and small muscles will get tired. Support your spelling hand with the other hand. Keep your wrist straight. This helps avoid strain.

Communication Etiquette

31. No rings or bracelets please, and keep fingernails trim.

32. Beyond regular cleanliness, wash your hands often. Do not take offense if they ask you to smoke elsewhere. Go easy on the perfume or other scents. Hygiene is especially important when you must touch each other to communicate.

33. Don't ask a question or begin a conversation if it might prove embarrassing to have it overheard. Warn them if others enter the area. If you don't see or hear other people, it is easy to forget they are there or that they may be listening.

34. When a hearing-sighted person is busy working on something or talking to someone, and a friend walks by and speaks to them briefly, it is only a slight interruption. They can respond briefly or "mmph" or wave, etc. in reply without looking up, and without really interrupting their train of thought. When a deaf-sighted person is busy working on something or talking to someone and a friend walks by and speaks to them briefly, it calls their eyes and attention away; it is an interruption. Therefore, it is polite to speak "in passing" only when the deaf person is free to look at you easily. Even starting a longer conversation should be done with this in mind. It is best to approach and wait to be noticed or until the deaf person is at a stopping point. When a deaf-blind person is busy working on something or talking to someone and a friend walks by and speaks to them briefly, it is a major interruption. Communication always requires full attention, physical and mental. Therefore, it is considered polite to speak to a deaf-blind friend in passing only when they appear to be not busy. However, when they are not busy, it is always a pleasure to have some contact with friends even if it is brief.

35. Try to maintain a balance between relaxed, unhurried communication and the pressures of the world. Time is a huge issue. There is never enough of it when we are enjoying ourselves. On the one hand, don't rush the conversation. Communication may take more time than you're used to. Doing things certainly does. It's important to take time to really understand both thoughts and feelings, as well as their context. On the other hand, be clear about your time constraints. Be realistic, you have many things to do and need time for yourself too. Plan before you meet, or even before you agree to meet. Tell them ahead of time when you will have to leave. That way they can plan the time better so that they don't feel cut off. Two hours is a nice block of time (if you do not have to travel at all). It is long enough to get into subjects thoroughly, and short enough so that you both do not get too tired.

36. If others are watching, encourage them to try. Some may be very interested, but shy or self conscious. Start by interpreting, then suggest they try themselves. Stay nearby to help out or relieve them. You might give them a few hints (e.g. whether to fingerspell or sign). If they've watched you they may already have the idea.


37. Try to communicate your personality through touch. Who you are and how you intend something comes through your hands. When a person cannot see and hear well, touch becomes very important. It brings most information and data. It gives aesthetic pleasure. Touch is the link to other people. A deaf-blind person must know from touch both what you say and how you feel about it. They must also learn through touch how you feel about them. Are you nervous? Do you withdraw? Are you warm and friendly or tired and bored?

38. Maintaining physical contact is reassuring. It lets the deaf-blind person get some feedback on how you're feeling, how you're reacting, and what you're thinking. It also makes it easy to get your attention if the deaf-blind person wants to say something. At first you may be uncomfortable "holding hands" while not actually talking, but almost no conversation continues non-stop, and these pauses soon seem as natural as in any conversation.

39. As your friendship and trust grow, touch will include more than a hand on yours "listening." It will include an occasional squeeze or stroke, a pat on the back, walking close and a hug of greeting or farewell. A word of caution must be inserted here. Some people (deaf-blind or not) are shy or private people and do not feel comfortable with much body contact. Use judgment (particularly with members of the opposite sex) and take time to know each other as individuals. Try to think of ways to communicate through touch, to make up for the missed smiles and chuckles, frowns and harumphs.

40. Touch also lets the deaf-blind person know who you are in terms of style. Some deaf-blind people like to touch to find out how tall you are, your hair style, what kinds of clothes you wear (e.g. jeans or skirts) and so on. Some of us are more comfortable with this kind of touch than others. Of course, this kind of exploration when you first meet is rather bold, but as you develop a relationship, be prepared for this gentle touch of exploration.

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For those of you who are sign language interpreters or have interpreted between deaf and hearing people, here are some guidelines for interpreting with people who are also blind.


The role of an interpreter for deaf-blind people is essentially the same - to facilitate communication. It is different from the role of interpreter for deaf people in that the tasks that are required to perform that role are different.

Role is distinct from ethics. The basic issues of respect for the integrity, privacy, etc. of a deaf-blind client is no different than it is for a deaf person.

1. You must report the visual environment as well as the auditory environment. This does not mean you must tell them everything you see (e.g. height of the ceiling, color of the walls) any more than you tell a deaf person everything you hear (buzz of the lights, typewriters down the hall). But it does mean that you do tell them everything of significance (e.g. someone entering the room, expression and mood of the speaker, size of the group, whose hand is raised).

2. When it is not appropriate to ask that things be slowed down, it may be necessary to edit, to summarize, to pick out the main points or ideas and interpret these. This is because you may be interpreting using a slow method and it may be impossible to keep up. You will certainly have more to interpret (i.e. the visual and auditory environment). This analysis and condensing requires great communication skill to do well. It requires even more judgment than an interpreter must ordinarily use.

3. Deaf-blind people will need a guide when they are in unfamiliar places. You may be asked to act as a sighted guide, reader, or to provide transportation. You should make sure that all these expectations are clarified (and negotiated) before you take the assignment.

4. As you can see, interpreting assignments with deaf-blind people often takes extra energy. There is more to think about, as well as more to do. You must think about this when you are negotiating the assignment. You may want to ask for a second interpreter for even a relatively short assignment. You may need to insist on more breaks. Especially for longer assignments, one suggestion is that drivers, guides and readers (who can sign) be arranged to relieve the interpreters. In any case, you must consider these extra demands on your energy and time.

5. One other aspect of the interpreting role that is the same, but perhaps intensified, is that of host or facilitator, helping everyone to feel relaxed and comfortable. This will include deaf people, hearing people, and your deaf-blind client. Many people (deaf or hearing) are quite uptight about communicating with a deaf-blind person. They may feel quite shy and unsure themselves. Your mood will help set the tone for the others.

The Text

6. Interpreting for deaf-blind people is unique in that you are often interpreting in groups and signing not only what is being said by hearing people, but also what is being signed by deaf people or even other deaf-blind people. Sometimes this is called "copy signing" or "shadowing." This leads to the question, should you always parrot their signs or should you sometimes change them? In fact, the question is the same as in any interpretation for deaf people: How much are we accommodating the modality (auditory to visual, etc.) and how much are we accommodating the language and culture (ASL to English)? Given the imbalance in opportunities, how much are we accommodating the differences in background information, etc.? On the one hand, it is good to keep as much of the original as possible, to retain the individuality and style of the speaker as far as you can. On the other hand, how valuable is this style and mood without any content? How important is it that they know what was said in relation to how it was said? To answer these questions, we must look at the effects of our changes. Does it take away power or preserve it, infantilize or empower the deaf-blind person? This question is the crucial one.

7. Change phases such as "It's the yellow one." "Do you want some of this?" to make them clear (e.g. "It's the square one." "Do you want some apple juice?").

The Context

The deaf-blind client, as mentioned above, relies on you to convey much more information than just what is said. Just as the environment or context is important background for clear communication when you are just talking, so, too, it is important in interpretation.

8. Always identify who is speaking. Pointing is usually not enough. In the interest of speed and accuracy it is often best to identify each speaker by their name sign. If you don't know it, then spell out the name. Sometimes, of course, you will be in a group where you do not know the name of the person speaking. Your next choice should be to identify the person by function or title such as the secretary, treasurer, police officer, nurse, etc. If this information is also unknown to you the speaker should still be identified in some way such as "a tall man" or "woman with an orange blouse." Even though the deaf-blind person is unable to see height or color, they get a handle on which to hang all the comments/questions of this one person. Preferably you would pick something indicative of the speaker's personality "man - fancy suit", "woman - vivid dress." This does several things:

  1. the deaf-blind person can know if several remarks are made by the same speaker.
  2. the deaf-blind person can begin to develop a sense of each speaker's views, opinions, and personality.
  3. after the meeting they can easily ask that you find out the name of one of the speakers, identifying them by your own code rather than by recapping all that they said.
  4. it relieves the interpreter from having to remember and sort out later who said what. If the deaf-blind listener has some tunnel vision, they may also want to look at the speaker. So pointing in the direction of the speaker will help locate as well as identify them. This is, however, only a supplement and usually insufficient to rely on.

9. Be sure to convey the mood as well as the content of what is said. While one's hands alone do convey some of the mood, they do not communicate as much as hands, face, and body combined. You may have to state mood specifically (e.g. Maggie, teasing says "Where have you been?") Give people's reactions as well (e.g. "Jerry looks puzzled."). If the speaker is signing wildly, angrily, you should do that too, but keep your signs clear. It is best to state the mood BEFORE you interpret what is said. This is the order in which we ordinarily perceive it and it prevents the deaf-blind person from feeling insulted, only to find out afterward it was all a joke. It is hard to get un-angry then.

10. If you do quite a bit of interpreting for the same deaf-blind individual, it might be good to work out a set of private, inconspicuous signals to indicate mood or listeners reaction to what they are saying (e.g. a simple touch for a positive reaction, such as close attention or a smile; a squeeze for teasing, joking or laughter; a gentle poke or nudge to indicate hostility or anger). The two of you would, of course, have to work this out.

11. It is very helpful to have a recap session afterward to summarize and make clear the main points of the meeting, class, etc. Groups may move ahead quite rapidly, and you might not have time to include enough to make everything crystal clear. This, too, should be negotiated ahead of time. In any case you should be aware that requests for repetition, elaboration, or clarification from the deaf-blind person are not necessarily indications of inattentiveness.

The Physics of Interpreting

12. If you are interpreting vocally from a deaf-blind person's signs be sure to be:

  1. far enough away to read their signs clearly
  2. close enough to give them feedback

They will need to know if their audience agrees, disagrees, interrupts, etc. You may also miss a sign or phrase occasionally and need to touch them to interrupt briefly to clarify. Remember the deaf-blind person cannot monitor you to see how well you are following them.

13. The deaf-blind person may well have some usable vision and may want to watch you instead of, or as well as, receive signs tactually. In this case all the usual guidelines for interpreting apply -

  1. good distance (varies according to vision of deaf-blind person)
  2. good lighting
  3. plain, contrasting clothing
  4. good mouth movements for lipreaders.

14. Besides the choices of platform and tictile interpreter, there are also small group and one-on-one close vision interpreters. The small group interpreter is, in effect, a platform interpreter for a small group of people that needs a combination of less distance (being closer) and signing in a smaller area to accommodate tunnel vision.

15. For deaf-blind people, watching the platform interpreter it is best to a have very good (bright) lighting focused on the interpreter. It is also, important to have a solid dark background that is non reflective. A black or navy blue cloth draped over the wall is good.

16. For meetings, see if an FM (Frequency Modulated) loop or other assistive listening device would be useful. Some deaf-blind people are able to benefit tremendously from them. They are sometimes available from a hearing and speech center.

17. Of course, the platform interpreter will need to copy the signs of people in the audience, but they may also have to copy what the main speaker (signer) is saying. Sometimes the light is not sufficient for people with poor vision to see. Sometimes the signer wears a light-colored shirt or clothing that do not offer enough contrast. Sometimes the turn taking is too rapid for them to follow.

18. Deaf-blind speakers will need their own interpreter. This interpreter will relay what the audience is doing, when they are settled and ready to attend, who has their hands raised, audience feedback etc.


19. Be human. Many deaf people have told me how important it is to them that their interpreter be someone whose presence they enjoy. This is equally true of deaf-blind people, perhaps even more because often the interpreter acts as guide and companion during breaks. Because you cannot convey your interest and "friendly self" through the usual smiles, eye contact and relaxed body posture. it is important that you have an opportunity to chat and get acquainted - time other than strictly interpreting. You need not "become a friend;" you need only "be friendly," which necessitates (in this case) a little extra time and conversation. This is important because it affects the actual interpreting process. It is analogous to a good "bedside manner," which affects the healing process.

20. Develop a good team. One of the pleasures of interpreting for deaf-blind persons is the opportunity to work with (large) teams of interpreters. So often our field is isolating.

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The primary fact of deaf-blindness is loneliness and isolation. Consider how important communication is to a human being. Communication, stimulation, and companionship are essential to life as a human being. Understand their burning need. On the other hand, for any relationship to be rewarding and lasting, or a true friendship, there must be give and take. You, the hearing/sighted person, must be getting some benefit out of the relationship. Maybe the deaf-blind person is a stimulating conversationalist; maybe they have a wonderful spirit full of warmth and joy; maybe they have things to teach you; maybe you enjoy watching them grow and learn, maybe you enjoy seeing life through a different perspective. In any event, you must allow the deaf-blind person the pleasure of giving as well as that of receiving. Expecting nothing from the deaf-blind person is an insult. If there are things you need from the friendship, do not be afraid to ask; take time and talk it over. Respect the deaf-blind person as a person and treat them accordingly. Let common sense and kindness guide you. Be observant and thoughtful, then let your humanity do the rest.

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The ideas and suggestions in this paper were compiled after much thought, reading and discussion. For the earliest version of this paper, I would like to particularly thank Stephen Ehrlich and Jill Hanman, Michael Hughes, Christy Davis, Lee Hagmeir, and Bemic Taylor. I would also like to acknowledge the large contribution of the book Glimpses Into a Hidden World by Frieda LePla.

Copyright October, 1977

Revised (Copyright renewed) October, 1992

Distributed by:
National Information Clearinghouse on Children who are Deaf-Blind

Central Office:
Teaching Research
345 Monmouth Ave.
Monmouth Oregon 97361

The National Information Clearinghouse on Children who are deaf-Blind is funded through Cooperative Agreement No. H02:5U20001 by the U.S. Department of Education, OSERS, Special Education Programs. Part of its mission is to disseminate information, such as contained herein. However, the opinions or policies expressed within this document do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or the National Information Clearinghouse on Children who are Deaf-Blind.

Video tapes authored by Theresa B. Smith on the subjects of interpreting for deaf-blind people, and an introduction to the deaf-blind community are available from Sign Media Inc.

Deaf-Blind Communication and Community: An Overview and Introduction

Deaf-Blind Communication and Community: Getting Involved - A Conversation

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