Protactile Language: Creating Equity for DeafBlind Individuals

NOTE: October is Blind Awareness Month

Protactile Language Interpreting icon. National Education Program

By: Heather Holmes, Protactile Language Interpreting National Program co-director; CM Hall, Protactile Language Interpreting National Program co-director; and Kristen Rhinehart-Fernandez, Rehabilitation Services Administration project officer

The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) is working to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility and systems change through its Training of Interpreters for Individuals Who are Hard of Hearing and Individuals Who are DeafBlind program.

In October 2021, RSA funded seven projects to provide training to working interpreters in specialty areas to develop a new skill area or enhance an existing skill area to effectively meet the communication needs of individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing and individuals who are DeafBlind receiving vocational rehabilitation services and/or services from other programs, such as independent living services, under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended.

One of the project’s funded is Western Oregon University’s Protactile Language Interpreting (PLI) National Education Program. The program trains sign language interpreters working with DeafBlind consumers who are using a new language, Protactile, in a variety of settings such as vocational rehabilitation, post-secondary education, professional and business-related events, and medical settings.

What is Protactile language?

For equity to exist, a DeafBlind person has to be able to do everything a sighted and hearing person is able to do. Protactile language allows DeafBlind people to give, receive and exchange information through a tactile channel, rather than relying on auditory or visual channels to access information and language.

In Protactile language, the DeafBlind individual, the Protactile interpreter and the provider are in physical contact with one another during the interpretation. The provider communicates with the DeafBlind individual directly through touch, and in return, the DeafBlind consumer touches the medical provider, as touch is akin to eye contact. This prioritizes direct access to information and the interpreter does not create a barrier between the DeafBlind individual and the provider, but rather ensures that the DeafBlind individual receives as much information directly from the source as possible.

Touch is not only access, language, communication, information and power, but it is transformative and drives more confidence in autonomy and access.

Three videos help further explain Protactile language:

Protactile Language Origin Story

Protactile language is a growing movement that began in the DeafBlind community 15 years ago and is revolutionizing the field of sign language interpreting for individuals who are DeafBlind. In Protactile language, the interpreter is a co-conspirator with the DeafBlind person and seeks to promote and support the DeafBlind individuals’ autonomy.

At the center of the Protactile language movement is Jelica Nuccio, an individual who is DeafBlind and serves as a subject matter expert and consultant to Western Oregon University’s Protactile Language Interpreting project.

“We can’t grow if we always are only getting things secondhand from other people who are seeing them in the world firsthand because people are uncomfortable shifting to a tactile ground,” Nuccio shared. “We want to be the game changers in our world. We want information to be going out from us also and for co-presence to be able to occur.”

What is the difference between Protactile and American Sign Language (ASL)?

ASL makes use of ASL signs, grammatical structure and linguistics in visual “air” space. In ASL interpretation, the interpreter acts as a middle person to bridge linguistic and cultural gaps between hearing individuals and those who are Deaf and DeafBlind.

Protactile language is a separate and distinct language from ASL with its own linguistic components and vocabulary in contact space. To be able to interpret with DeafBlind individuals, ASL interpreters must learn Protactile Language.

Impact of the Protactile Language Interpreting Institute

There are many unique challenges for DeafBlind individuals related to access, and medical settings are often the most complicated to navigate.

An example of systems change occurred a few months ago when a language coordinator was hired at a hospital in western Oregon to oversee the provision of all language services.

The hospital initially relied on video remote interpreting, which is often inaccessible to people who are DeafBlind. The hospital also provided in-person ASL interpreters, but they were not familiar with or trained to interpret in Protactile.

These challenges resulted in a meeting to address a critical need to provide patients with qualified Protactile interpreters. One of the interpreters at this meeting was a trained Protactile interpreter through the RSA-funded DeafBlind Interpreting Institute at Western Oregon University.1

The interpreter was familiar with the difference between ASL and Protactile language and understood the importance of DeafBlind autonomy. As a result, the trained Protactile interpreter was able to advocate with the DeafBlind individual for qualified Protactile interpreters in medical settings.

The hospital provided 24-hour interpreting services for a DeafBlind patient receiving medical care. Most of the interpreters who worked with the patient were alumni from the DeafBlind Interpreting Institute or the Protactile Language Interpreting Institute grants funded by RSA. The team consisted of hearing and Deaf interpreters, and all worked in conjunction with the hospital’s staff and ASL interpreters to interpret the information into Protactile Language.

This change was made possible due to the advocacy of the local DeafBlind community and the interpreters who were trained through the DeafBlind Interpreting Institute and Protactile Language Interpreting Institute grants.

This unique training provided interpreters with the language competencies they needed to interpret into Protactile and provided them with an understanding of the paradigm shift that is required to do this type of interpreting work. This is one small example of the ways that interpreters and DeafBlind individuals are working together toward systems change that will have a big impact on the DeafBlind community.

Where can one learn more about Protactile language interpreting?

The Protactile Language Interpreting National Education Program offers online learning resources.

However, one cannot learn Protactile language entirely online. A person must be immersed within the community, and this immersion experience is what makes PLI unique. Only this type of training directly from DeafBlind Protactile educators can lead to real and lasting language development and change within systems.

People taking PLI’s modules or participate in the program should remember the simplicity of keeping in touch — literally and figuratively.

Visit PLI’s website, YouTube channel or Facebook page for more information. To contact PLI, visit the contact page on the program’s website.

1 In 2016, the DeafBlind Interpreting National Training and Resource Center at Western Oregon University was funded by RSA to increase the number of qualified interpreters who work with individuals who are DeafBlind. As a result of this project, 156 working interpreters (i.e., interpreters who possess a bachelor’s degree or equivalent with three or more years of experience) enrolled and successfully completed specialized training in Protactile Language in 25 states. Of those, 88% obtained employment in the areas for which they were prepared, and 77% reported they advanced in employment in the areas for which they were prepared.

Heather Holmes is the Protactile Language Interpreting National Program co-director and holds a Master of Science degree, a National Interpreter Certification – Advanced and an Educational Interpreter Certification. CM Hall is also the Protactile Language Interpreting National Program co-director and holds a master’s degree in education, a National Interpreter Certification – Advanced and an Educational Interpreter Certification.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

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