Tactile Signing with One-Handed Perception
Mesch, Johanna, Sign Language Studies
Tactile signing among persons with deaf-blindness is not homogenous; rather, like other forms of language, it exhibits variation, especially in turn taking. Early analyses of tactile Swedish Sign Language, tactile Norwegian Sign Language, and tactile French Sign Language focused on tactile communication with four hands, in which partially blind or functionally blind signers use both hands for production and perception in the conversation dyad. In this article, I add to this body of research by focusing on tactile one-handed perception in Swedish Sign Language, in which a signer uses the left hand to produce and receive signs, and an addressee uses the right hand not only to receive but also to produce signs after taking a turn. As part of this discussion, I also look at issues of conversation regulation, hand movement during the turn change, and variation in the backchannel signals. The study shows that in tactile signing, interlocutors must change hand position when taking turns.
DEAF-BLIND PEOPLE can have very active social lives by participating in deaf-blind activities, learning and practicing communication methods, using interpreting services, continuing their education, and attending meetings; however, social activity among this group of people is a relatively recent phenomenon. The nonprofit organization Förbundet Sveriges Dövblinda (Association of the Swedish Deaf-Blind) was established in 1959, and after an increase in meetings, activities, and interpreting services in the 1970s, it finally became truly active during the 1980s, when it began representing not only Sweden but the other Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland) as well. Today, the resource center for professionals in deaf-blindness for the Nordic countries1 is in Denmark.
Deaf-blind signers constitute a small subset of deaf-blind people; in Sweden, there are approximately 200-300 deaf-blind people who use sign language. Much of the social activity of the deaf-blind community relies on a special form of sign language called tactile sign language, which requires participants to hold each other's hands to communicate. Tactile sign language is used in conversations as well as in interpreted situations with deaf-blind people who acquired sign language in their early childhood and use it as their primary language in direct communication. As their sight is lost or becomes too weak to perceive signs, deaf signers go from visual to tactile reception of manual signs, and most nonmanual signals are lost in the transition.
Due to the signers' physical limitations, visual signing and tactile signing differ in many respects. For instance, in visual signing, eye gaze between a sender and an addressee is required for certain communication functions (Mather 1987; Martinez 1995; Metzger 1998), but eye gaze combined with deictic pointing is also used for first person singular and for other references away from the signer's body (Ahlgren 1990) to give the gaze referential signal to the addressee (Engberg-Pedersen 1990). Nilsson (2008) points out that eye gaze involves the use of the signing space and that it can either be directed to an addressee or be used in constructed dialogue, action, and thought. However, it cannot be used by signers with deaf-blindness,2 or at least it is strongly restricted to receiving signs as it requires eye contact between Si and S2 (the signers). Thus, tactile signing also differs from visual signing in the negotiation of turn taking. In fact, eye gaze is a critical component of turn taking in visual sign language (Baker 1977).
Early research in tactile sign language in the Scandinavian countries included those on Swedish Sign Language (Mesch 1994, 1998) and Norwegian Sign Language (Raanes 2006). Haptic signals3 were later developed to meet the needs of nonsigned (as well as signed) deaf-blind communication (Lahtinen 2008). Early analyses of tactile Swedish Sign Language focus on tactile communication with four hands, where partially blind or functionally blind signers use both hands for production and perception. …