DbI Review

Social-Haptic Communication for Acquired Deafblind People and Family: incorporating touch and environmental information through holistic communication

by Russ Palmer and Riitta Lahtinen

Last Autumn 2004 at the Nordic Staff Training Centre (NUD) in Denmark and at the NUD Icelandic Conference there was an opportunity for Riitta Lahtinen (Communication Researcher Consultant) from Finland to present her Licentiate thesis research titled, ”Development of the Holistic Social-Haptic Confirmation System”

This will form the basis of Riitta’s final PhD work on Holistic and Interactive Communication with Acquired Deafblind People. This is a longitudinal case study of the “Yes” and “No” feedback signals and how they can become more commonly and frequently used within the family with an acquired deafblind person.

Russ writes…

I believe Ritta’s work will influence our understanding of how we can improve the quality of our communication between Deafblind, Usher’s, Acquired Deafblind people, Interpreters and professionals working in the respective areas. The methods and techniques described here could be further expanded into other disability groups creating a more holistic and interactive environmental view of the world around them.

One major problem of having a dual-sensory impairment is the difficulty in perceiving and interpreting people’s body language at a specific time or event. All too often deafblind people miss out on this information increasing their reliance on friends, family or interpreting services if these are available.

The theories, methods and techniques that Riitta has identified are not necessarily new and have in fact been around for many years and are probably being used within deafblind communities around Europe. Until recently these communication methods have not been systematically recorded, identified or studied in detail. Through her own associations with various acquired deafblind people around the world over the past 20 years, Riitta has spent nearly 15 years analysing and recording her observations through her diaries. When we met in Sweden at a DBI conference in 1991 and became a couple, we both started to analyse our own methods of communication making improvements and trying to bridge the gap between spoken and Sign Language.

As an Usher type 3 person I use spoken language as my main form of communication and up to my recent cochlear implant operation in March 2004 I was having to rely heavily on tactile or, correctly defined by Riitta, (2003) as Social-Haptic methods of communication. This enabled me to pick up environmental, social and body language from people whether individually or in groups.

Riitta explains…

“Through analysing how we are moving and responding, I realised, that we use our body movements “unconsciously” to respond to others. I use here the word “Social-Haptic-system” when I illustrate the combinations of our tactile environmental information, kinestic movements and how we use our personal space when communicating.”

Russ continues…

One specific application is the ability to assist interpreters by giving them “shortcut” techniques while at the same time providing communication that feels spontaneous or what Riitta defines as in real-time. This allows me to be part of a social group conversation without the feeling of becoming isolated because of the deafblindness. Furthermore, family, relatives, friends and professionals can also use and learn these techniques relatively quickly i.e. coffee, espresso or cappuccino coffee, all have their own symbolic notation which are clearly defined. Another example is when in a social situation where people are laughing, teasing, crying etc. these can also be applied using the Social-Haptic methods. Riitta’s licentiate work focuses predominantly on the application of the “Yes” and “No” signals, identifying the theories, methods and techniques and the various stages of the developmental processes. It took us 8 years as a couple to identify each of these stages and when we teach them in our international courses, they are automatically picked up by deafblind people and family members quickly. Very often deafblind people realise that they have already been using similar methods but have not perhaps discussed this openly.

Sometimes where there is an acquired deafblind family member and a hearing and sighted spouse, the deteriorating hearing and vision loss condition can affect their long-term relationship as a couple. I am sure that had Riitta and I not been open about our communication difficulties, our relationship could have most certainly ceased. Through analysing our problems together, discussing and applying a mixture of Social-Haptic techniques we have identified these different stages. I have to mention at this point that Riitta has been the scientist and I have been the guinea pig!!

Riitta explains…

“One of the main issues is how we use our language. Our culture is based on a distance communication and picking up visual clues. We understand our language is part of the holistic action and that is why we call it “functional communication”. We communicate through using various methods such as speech and lip-reading, using hearing aids, radio microphone, Cochlea Implant depending on the different environmental conditions i.e. contrasting lighting conditions and background noises. The methods employed may be individually used or combined together i.e. Hands-on-Fingerspelling, Hands-on-Signing, Body Signs and Signals, Information through Touch and Body Movements”.

Russ continues…

Observing everyday language behaviours with couples can give us an insight into functional solutions through analysing the processes of the different methods and techniques used in a spontaneous manner. Environmental orientation is one aspect of the social interactive process of being able to participate as a member of a group.

Every time we leave our home environment the communication changes. The quality of conversation from both parties’ point of view when walking, travelling or doing every day activities is very important. The same techniques can assist professionals and interpreters who are working with deafblind people.

The process of communication involves the situation, context, space and orientation. It is not just sharing language information, but also producing non-verbal information such as real-time feedback of emotions and behaviours. It is a question of understanding the whole phenomenon as part of the language behaviour in everyday life.

Holistic interactive communication is a philosophy where both parties identify the whole communication situation and the elements involved through the whole process. Both parties react to the elements of their internal and external stimulus, environment, place, objects, activities and people around them. Interactive means that both parties are sending and receiving messages all the time. This means couples need to have determination, encouragement and a lot of energy to find the right method(s). For example, Riitta and I appear to use more our sense of touch and body movements when sharing information and situations together. Social-Haptics can be summarised into the following areas:

Hands-on methods (signing, signs, fingerspelling, block letters)

  • The application of social quick messages giving social information (body signs, feedback, behaviour)
  • Expressing and receiving emotions
  • Guiding through body movements and signals
  • Sharing environmental orientation (body drawing)
  • Sharing art experiences through movements i.e. kinestic information

Conclusions: What the Social-Haptic methods has given us?

Russ continues…

“The more we use our body and touch, the more sensitive I have become in receiving and interpreting touch messages. Touch will give a greater quality to our discussions and an interaction, without it, the information does not have the true value. It also saves our energy and misunderstandings. Touch will give me information on how other people are behaving, their feedback, non-verbal clues and emotions very quickly. It is very important to have feedback to my responses. This means that I am able to be more on equal terms with other people. For me, touch gives a feeling of security and without contact I feel isolated. Being open towards each other is the key.”

Riitta explains…

“The interpretation of the meaning of touch can be changed and controlled by using different neutral places on the body, by applying the size of movements and pressure. Physical realisation of the hand and skin information can give different nuances and interpretations of touch. The areas of the body have been enlarged during the years. To be a participant is based on having to learn different possibilities and creating the skills or readiness of having and using different methods both at home and outside the home with a range of people. For us, repetition, being unsure, disturbing or interrupting situations made communication more stressful and we wasted a lot of our energies. But using the body when describing situations, places and different events or activities provides the possibility to be an active participant.”


  • Lahtinen, R. (2003) Development of the Holistic Social-Haptic Confirmation System. A Case Study of the “Yes” & “No” – Feedback Signals and how they become more commonly and frequently used in a Family with an Acquired Deafblind Person. Licenciate Thesis, University of Helsinki, Faculty of Education, Department of Teacher Education.
  • Lahtinen, R. & Palmer. R. (2000) Holistic & Interactive Communication Methods with Acquired Deafblind People & Families – A Practical Approach. Joint Training Initiative, Distance Learning Course (incl. Video). Manchester University, UK.
  • Lahtinen, R. (1999) Holistic and Interactive Communication Methods. In Peckford, B. & Hawcroft, L. (Edit.) Proceedings of an International Symposium in Interpreting for Deafblind People. Prontaprint, Durham, UK, 64-65.
  • Lahtinen, R. & Palmer, R. (1996) Holistic Family Communication. Spoken Language by Touch is more than just Words. 4th European Deafblind Conference, Espoo, Finland.
  • Lahtinen, R. & Palmer, R. (1994) Communication with Usher People. Deafblind Education, July-December, 7-9.

For further information contact:

Riitta Lahtinen LicEd. Med
Communication Researcher Consultant
Website: www.kolumbus.fi/riitta.lahtinen

Russ Palmer SRAT(M)
International Music Therapist
Email: rpalmer2@tiscali.co.uk
Website: www.russpalmer.com