A series of 6 tactile symbols attached to cards. Each card has a word in print and an object, i.e. "nutrition" and a piece of tubing Expand Image
Tactile symbols used by a student to communicate about daily activities.

Communication is any way that we share information with others. Deafblindness is an information gathering disability. As such, communication is a significant challenge for students who are deafblind. It is often a team's highest priority to help the student build on their communication skills.
Students who are deafblind can and do communicate in many ways. Careful observation of a student can show how they gather information and share their thoughts and feelings with others. Some students use formal communication methods like speech or sign language as their primary modes of communication. Other students communicate more subtlety or informally.
Students who are deafblind learn best through experience and direct teaching. A student's team can support them to develop communication skills over time by providing Intervention and using strategies personalized for the student's needs and interests.

Total Communication Approach

Each person who is deafblind experiences a unique combination of vision and hearing differences. Students gather bits of information from the environment using all of their available senses. POPDB supports the use of a Total Communication Approach with students who are deafblind.

When using a Total Communication Approach, an Intervenor uses multiple methods to communicate with a student. The methods chosen are specific to the student and provide the best opportunity for understanding.

Communication Strategies

The Intervenor helps connect the student who is deafblind with their immediate environment in a meaningful way. The Intervenor needs to use the combination of communication modes that best suit the learner's needs and supports them to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and needs. Not all communication modes will work for all individuals, as each individual has their own way of gathering information and responding to it. The goal is for the learner to gather as much undistorted information as possible.

Communication with a learner who is deafblind can often be very subtle - a tensing of muscles, a slight glance, a wiggle of the toe. The Intervenor has to listen with every part of their being - ears, eyes, hands, whole bodies, and especially hearts. The Intervenor needs to be there to respond to all communicative attempts. The Intervenor acts as a communication partner, ensuring communication access and facilitating expressive, as well as receptive communication.

A learner with deafblindness may use alternate communication modes. For example, the student may use object cues, texture cues, tracings, line drawings, picture symbols, and/or technology to communicate. It is important to respect this and remember that the communication system belongs to student and not to the Intervenor or other people who support them. It is important to ensure that these systems are accessible, organized, and used by the individual. What good are words that are kept on a shelf and only brought out when the Intervenor needs to use them? The individual with deafblindness needs to have access to their communication systems in order to be an active partner in the communication process.

Each individual communication system should provide: 

  1. A way for the individual to express themself effectively
  2. Someone to communicate with
  3. A reason to communicate
  4. Something to communicate about: experiences, interests, people, events
  5. Somewhere for communication to take place: within routines, activities, events, the school, the community

The Intervenor needs to be a constant presence for the learner with deafblindness, supplying  information that the learner is unable to gather independently. This must be done in a way that is meaningful and easily understood by the individual. It is through knowing the learner that the Intervenor is able to read subtle communication attempts and respond accordingly.

Typically, a combination of communication modes are used to ensure that the individual with deafblindness has many opportunities to gather information. With experience, the Intervenor will learn which modes to use to best convey the necessary information to the learner. Below are some examples of communication modes:

  1. An environmental cue is a cue that occurs naturally within a routine activity and lets the student know what is going to happen. (For example, putting on the seatbelt to go for a ride in the car, smelling the chlorine in the pool).
  2. A touch cue is a signal placed on the learner's body to give a specific message. (For examples, a tap on the mouth to mean drink, a tap on the shoulder to mean sit down).
  3. An object cue is a communication prompt that involves using a real object (visually or tactilely) that has meaning for the learner. (For example, an apron to represent cooking, a shopping bag to indicate shopping). Learn more about using objects to communicate
  4. Gestures are mutually understood natural movements or signals that are used to communicate specific ideas. (For example, pointing to an object when you want the child to notice it, waving goodbye).
  5. Vocalizations are sounds made to get attention, to communicate specific things, and to make wants and needs known. (For example, sounds specific to the child, spoken word).
  6. Pictures are representations of an object, a concept, or an activity. (For example, photographs, Boardmaker pics).
  7. Other techniques include abstract forms of communication. (For example, sign language, Braille/written word).

Students who are deafblind often miss information that would give them a reason to initiate communication. Consequently, it may be necessary to intentionally provide a reason to communicate. Some ways to encourage communication include interrupting a routine or activity by using the START... STOP.... WAIT technique. Allow lots of time for the student to process the action and to respond. Examples include:

  • Start by performing an activity that the student enjoys, such as bouncing or swinging. Bounce or push the swing for a while, then STOP and WAIT for the student to signal to continue that they would like to continue the activity by bouncing, kicking legs, or vocalizing. Then begin the process again.
  • Put the student in the swing but do not push. Wait for the student to indicate they would like to start the activity.
  • Show the student two foods or two toys and wait for the student to indicate a choice.
  • Roll a ball to the child. After you and the child roll the ball back and forth several times, stop and wait.