In one revolutionary language, a community taps the power of touch (video)

A new language centered around touch is spreading within the DeafBlind community and revolutionizing how its members communicate. 

Protactile, or PT, emerged in Seattle in 2007, when a group of DeafBlind people began exploring their natural tactile instincts. PT is not meant to be heard or seen. Instead, the speaker articulates a message by applying different touches to the receiver’s hands, arms, and other parts of the body. Today, thousands of people have expanded PT’s reach, and the language continues to evolve as new expressions emerge, unique to PT and derived from DeafBlind people’s experiences.

PT aims to remove comprehension barriers in traditional communication methods used by DeafBlind people, such as American Sign Language (ASL). Jaimi Lard, a DeafBlind woman who works as a public speaker at Perkins School for the Blind, says sign languages were created to be seen, not felt. This led to misunderstandings as she tried to physically track other people's ASL. As a result, she sometimes participated in activities without grasping what was happening. But with PT, “we are able to be included in more,” says Ms. Lard in ASL. 

Why We Wrote This

For DeafBlind people, sign language has long been a meager way to feel the connections that sight and sound convey. This is the story of their amazing efforts to create their own language based on touch, transforming how they relate to each other and the world.

Ms. Lard and her hearing and sighted interpreter, Christine Dwyer, have incorporated elements of PT in their communication. “I’ve known [Jaimi] for 30 years,” says Ms. Dwyer at a recent talk she gave with Ms. Lard. “Seeing the difference that Jaimi and I have been able to do in our communication in the past year is just amazing.”

Editors’ note: The Monitor has updated references in this story to DeafBlind to reflect the preference of many members of this community.

This video is meant to be watched, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. For those who are unable to watch or listen, we have provided a transcript of the video below. 


Video Transcript

The video opens with a scene of Jaimi Lard, a DeafBlind woman, and Christine Dwyer, a hearing and sighted interpreter. They are demonstrating elements of Protactile language together. Christine describes the layout of a building to Jaimi in Protactile. Jaimi holds out one hand, palm up, to represent the floor. A close up shows Christine’s hand “walking” with two fingers on Jaimi’s palm. Jaimi keeps her other hand on top of Christine’s hand to follow her movements. Then Christine signs and applies various touches to Jaimi’s palm. Jing Peng, reporter and the narrator of this video, sits next to them and watches. There is a marimba soundtrack, which gets softer as the male narrator begins to speak.

NARRATOR: This is a new language that could change the lives of thousands of DeafBlind people.

The video cuts to a shot of Christine describing a detachable camera lens to Jaimi. Jaimi makes a loose fist to represent the lens. Christine taps on Jaimi’s hand and applies twisting motions to it. Jaimi’s other hand stays on one of Christine’s hands to track her movements.

The words “Protactile (PT)” appear on the top left of the screen.

NARRATOR: It’s called Protactile, or PT, and it’s based entirely on the sense of touch.

The video cuts to a scene of four DeafBlind people speaking PT. Two people are seated directly in front of the camera, and two others are seated further in the background. Each pair of people sit closely together, facing each other, the outer sides of their thighs pressed together. As the speaker talks with their hands, the person receiving the message follows the conversation with one hand, and uses the other hand to provide reactions on the speaker’s leg.

The video then cuts to another scene, where eight DeafBlind people are seated in four pairs in one long row. They are talking in PT.

NARRATOR: PT emerged in 2007 in the DeafBlind community. And it’s still growing and spreading.

The video cuts to a scene of Jaimi and Christine demonstrating elements of PT to around 50 people in a conference room. Jaimi and Christine stand side by side. Jaimi holds out her hand, palm up. Christine holds Jaimi’s palm with one hand. Her other hand traces lines on the palm, then applies various finger taps to it. Jaimi’s other hand follows Christine’s hand movement.

The text “Jaimi Lard” and “Christine Dwyer” appear on screen, near Jaimi and Christine respectively. Each name has an arrow pointing to the person it refers to. 

NARRATOR: This is Jaimi Lard, she and her hearing and sighted interpreter, Christine Dwyer, have incorporated elements of PT in their communication.

CHRISTINE (addressing the audience): I’ve known her for 30 years, and we have changed the way we communicate.

The video cuts to an interview setting. Jaimi sits in the middle of an office, flanked on either side by Christine and Jing. The text “Jing Peng, Reporter” appears under Jing’s chest. Both Christine and Jing have one hand placed on Jaimi’s shoulder. Christine and Jaimi’s knees touch.

NARRATOR: For this interview, Jaimi speaks in American Sign Language, which Christine interprets.

JAIMI (answering a question about PT): By getting it tactilely, we were able to be included in more.

The video cuts back to the conference room. Jaimi addresses her audience in ASL. Christine stands next to Jaimi, keeping one hand on Jaimi’s back as she interprets.

JAIMI (addressing the audience): I was born deaf and blind.

NARRATOR: Jaimi works as a diversity speaker at Perkins School for the Blind.

The video cuts to Jaimi’s apartment. Jaimi chats in ASL with a Deaf Japanese woman named Kasumi. Kasumi speaks. Jaimi puts a hand on hers to track the signs. Jaimi smiles and signs “yes” with her other hand.

In the next shot, Kasumi teaches Jaimi the sign “flower” in Japanese Sign Language. Jaimi feels the sign with both hands and copies it. The sign starts with two cupped hands pressed together. Then the wrists rotate as the palms open and all ten fingers spread out like petals.

NARRATOR: Growing up, Jaimi learned American Sign Language, or ASL. That’s one of the ways DeafBlind people communicate: by placing one’s hand over the speaker’s to feel what they’re signing. But, there’s a problem.

JAIMI (speaking during the interview): American Sign Language is a visual language.

The video cuts to Jaimi and Christine speaking ASL to Kasumi in the lobby of a building. Kasumi watches their signs and nods.

NARRATOR: ASL is designed for sighted Deaf people. It’s meant to be seen. And many gestures that make sense to your eyes make little sense when you touch them.

The video cuts back to the interview setting. Jaimi and Christine demonstrate elements of ASL that are hard to follow for some DeafBlind people. Christine describes a space by pointing at imaginary objects in the air, while Jaimi tracks her signs with one hand.

JAIMI (speaking during the interview): There were things I was misunderstanding. I just began to do a nod, and just go ‘uh-huh, uh-huh,’ and go along with things. But I wasn’t always sure what I was going along with.

NARRATOR: It’s the kind of passivity that could hurt DeafBlind people’s independence and autonomy.

The video cuts to Jaimi’s office. Jaimi writes an email at her computer, using an app that magnifies texts on her screen. She leans forward, her face close to the monitor. She clicks the button “compose,” types on her keyboard. Her sunglass lenses reflect the magnified letters on her screen.

The soundtrack changes to an upbeat, rhythmic marimba, as the video transitions to a montage of PT demonstration by Jelica Nuccio and aj granda, two leaders of the PT movement. They sit close together, half facing the camera, half facing each other. Their knees touch. In the first shot, aj describes a waterfall to Jelica. Her palm makes fast, repeated rubs on Jelica’s hand and forearm, showing the intensity of the water flow. The rubs become slower and gentler, indicating a weaker water current.

In the next shot, aj describes a cooking procedure. Jelica holds out her hand, palm up, to represent the pan. On both sides of the hand, aj traces shapes and applies various taps, showing how the batter spreads out on the pan, how the fire licks the underside of the pan, and how the batter bubbles as it heats up. 

NARRATOR: But in the mid-2000s, a group of DeafBlind people in Seattle realized they should explore their natural tactile instincts, and PT was born in the process.

The last shot of the montage is a close up of Jelica and aj’s legs. Jelica maps out spatial information aj’s thigh, tracing lines and applying various finger taps. When Jelica finishes, aj taps and scratches Jelica’s thigh in response.

NARRATOR: Not meant for sight, PT uses the receiver’s body as the medium for communication. Here’s an example of how it's different from ASL: Christine will first use ASL to describe the layout of a building.

The video cuts back to the interview setting. Christine guides Jaimi’s hands around in the air to trace out the shape of the building. She then points to different parts of the imaginary building and signs what’s in those areas. Christine voices what she signs: “In the middle is the tower. And on the sides are two hallways. This one has classrooms, this side has offices. But if I’m going to change it to PT, I’m going to ask Jaimi to give me her hand. And I can use this to draw the visual information.”

The scene continues. Christine pats Jaimi’s hand, which has been placed on top of hers, to signal that she wants Jaimi’s other hand for mapping purposes. Jaimi holds out her hand, palm up. Christine applies finger taps to Jaimi’s palm to indicate the center of the building, then she draws the two hallways extending from either side of the center, one down Jaimi’s forearm, the other up to her fingertips. She then taps the areas on Jaimi’s palm and arm that correspond to the hallways, and explains what each side contains. She voices what she signs: “On each side are hallways, with classrooms and offices.”

Christine then indicates the route to the bathroom. She uses two fingers to walk on Jaimi’s palm, and signs to add information. Christine voices what she is telling Jaimi: “In this hall way you go left to the end. And then take a right. The second door on your left is the bathroom. Jaimi smiles in excitement.

JAIMI: “That’s clearer.”

The video cuts to the conference room. During a break in the presentation, Christine draws spatial information on Jaimi’s palm. A woman walks up to converse with them.

NARRATOR: And this sense of one’s surroundings is vital for DeafBlind people’s safety and autonomy.

The video cuts to another montage of PT demonstration by Jelica Nuccio and aj granda. They sit close together, half facing the camera, half facing each other. Their knees touch. The first shot shows Jelica touching aj’s head and shoulders to describe the length of a person’s hair. One of aj’s hands rests on Jelica’s thigh, and makes tapping motions in response to Jelica’s description. Two arrows appear on screen, indicating the two ways in which information flows between aj and Jelica. One arrow follows Jelica’s arm and points to aj. The other arrow points from aj’s hand on Jelica’s thigh to Jelica.

NARRATOR: Another key innovation of PT is its two-way communication channel between the speaker and the receiver.

The next shot of the PT montage shows aj describing an intense water current. Her palm makes forceful, successive rubs on Jelica’s arm. Jelica’s other hand, placed on aj’s thigh, makes repeated tapping and scratching motions as Jelica receives aj’s message. An arrow points to Jelica’s hand to highlight its movements.

NARRATOR: This allows the receiver to transmit reactions and emotions in real time without interrupting the speaker, through a mechanism called backchanneling.

The next shot of the PT montage starts with Jelica speaking to aj, who gives a tap on Jelica’s leg. Two arrows on screen indicate the two-way information flow. Jelica finishes her sentence. As aj starts to speak, she lifts her hand from Jelica’s thigh, and Jelica in turn places a hand on aj’s thigh to provide feedback. The two arrows fade out and two new arrows pointing in the opposite direction fade in.

NARRATOR: This two-way flow is crucial for a sense of connection and engagement.

Video transitions back to the interview setting. Reporter Jing’s hand stays on Jaimi’s shoulder as he listens to her answer. At one point, Jing taps Jaimi’s shoulder repeatedly, and a circle appears around his hand to highlight the movement. Jaimi smiles and nods in response.

NARRATOR: During our interview, Christine and I gave tactile feedback to Jaimi.

A shot of Christine tapping Jaimi’s thigh repeatedly. A circle highlights the hand movement.

NARRATOR: Here, Christine is nodding.

A close up of Christine’s hand making rapid, repeated scratches on Jaimi’s shoulder. Christine’s laughter can be heard off screen.

NARRATOR: Here, she is laughing.

JAIMI (speaking during the interview): If there was no backchanneling, then you kind of get distracted. Because you’re trying to figure out: Are they still with me in this conversation? Did the person turn away? But by having a constant touch, it makes me feel like you care about this conversation, and you care about me. If I trust you, then we’re going to have a much clearer conversation.

Video cuts to Jaimi and Christine in the conference room. As Jaimi gives her presentation, Christine places her hand now on Jaimi’s back, now on her shoulder. A montage shows Christine’s hand tapping, scratching and closing into a fist to rub Jaimi’s back. As Jaimi and Christine laugh, Christine scratches Jaimi’s shoulder to convey her mood.

In the next sequence, the audience watches a video about Jaimi’s life. A clip shows Jaimi making coffee in her kitchen. The video’s female narrator, voicing Jaimi’s perspective, says: “My hands are not only tools. They are my eyes and ears too. The way people touch my hands is important: Never grab or pull, using a light touch and gentle guide is much politer.” A blind woman can be seen among the audience. A man in a wheelchair sits in the front row. Jaimi and Christine chat in ASL as audience members view the video.

Video cuts to the interview setting. Christine uses PT’s mapping technique to describe a space to Jaimi. A close up show Jaimi’s hand on top of Christine’s.

NARRATOR: Jaimi and Christine are among the thousands of people who have been exposed to PT. As the young language grows, it’s seeing new expressions rooted in DeafBlind people’s experience that don’t exist in any other language.

The video soundtrack rises in intensity as the video cuts to a montage of different aspects of PT. In the first clip, two women interlocutors break into laughter. They guide each other’s hand to their own throat, so the other person can feel the vibration.

The next clip shows a woman talking to two other women in PT. The three sit close together in a cluster, facing each other, their knees touching. The speaker’s two hands make mirroring movements, conveying the same message to the two receivers, who follow what is said with one hand. Both receivers hold out their other hand, palm up, toward the speaker. The two palm’s sides touch. The speaker applies various touches to the two hands, the receivers’ shoulders, and her own chest.

The next sequence shows a man performing PT poetry for two women. All three sit close together, facing each other, knees touching. The man’s hands make mirroring movements on the two receivers’ body. His hands, placed on the back of the women’s heads, start to shake rapidly. Then the shaking hands travel down the receivers’ necks, across their chests, and down their arms to their hands, which are placed on the man’s knees. His hands clasp their hands, and all six hands slowly lift up, continuously shaking, above their heads. The shaking stops.

NARRATOR: It’s a new frontier of communication and connection.

JAIMI (speaking during the interview): I really want more training actually. I’ve learned some, but I don’t really have it all down in depth. So, I would like to certainly learn some more.

Video cuts back to the conference room. Jaimi and Christine thank their audience at the end of the presentation. The audience applauds. Instead of clapping, they shake their open palms above their heads and stomp the ground with their feet. Jaimi and Christine also lift their hands and shake their palms. Then Jaimi and Christine pat each other’s shoulders in celebration. Video cuts to black.

Credit screen: This video is produced by Jingnan Peng. Production supervisor: Samantha Laine Perfas. Additional clips from DeafBlind Interpreting. 

Video ends.

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