Monday, 28 May 2018 15:00

Sensitivity is speaking out

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The moment you touch something … it starts speaking to you in shapes, textures, temperature. It’s telling you about a world well beyond the one words can describe. Your fingers can respond to the touch with gentle movements, caressing or powerful pressure. They can draw things while making explanations. They could be the pencil writing stories as well as the rubber erasing them to tell more tales. The stories you write touching human skin are indeed the Story of Life of deafblind people. Their sensitivity is the page you’ve been writing your stories on which can handle any story told. It could well be the pencil writing out the description of the World beyond the line of Vision. Sensitivity is speaking out at the workshop on the Alternative Ways of Communication with Deafblind People held by the NADbBg from 12th May to 13th May 2018.

In May, the weather in Burgas is melancholic as it’s typical for the spring season. The skies are gray and it’s raining again. But the two days of the workshop I’d gladly taken part in are nothing like it. It was pretty sunny and you could sense the mutual affection in the air during the weekend in the middle of May. I had the chance to get in touch with the world of deafblind people once again. The participants at the workshops showed some knowledge brought out to them by Anna Roydeva and Deyan Slavov at the educational event held by the NADbBg. It was a memorable experience where the beneficial and the pleasurable combine. I believe these alternative methods based on the potential of sensitivity to bring about two-way communication, will give us the key to deafblind people’s world. I sincerely admire the dedication both participants and hosts showed on their way to build the bridge to this world. I’m more than glad to see our brave boy from the seaside town and his unresting mother walk this unknown path in hope.

12th of May, Saturday. The Sun is shining bright to light up every corner of the green vegetation in the park, warm up the place and dry out the pools of water. The sea is calmly reflecting the sunlight. On my way to Expo-Centre ‘Flora’, I meet elderly people who’ve woken up early to do their energetic workout at the outdoor gym in the seagarden. Children are going about as I sense the smell of coffee, see pets playing around in sheer joy and come across seagulls. Today will surely give us some time to fill with memorable events. Ani and Deyan are already in Hall number 1 and are waiting for the participants to arrive. We’re happily smiling at each other as we’re glad we’ve met up again. We give one another a big hug. Soon after the greetings, the other people arrive at the Hall. We have Maria, Peter, Rostislava, another Maria, Desi, Krasimir and the list of names goes on but I can’t really recall all of them. They take their seats. Today is the day to revise the so called daktil (Bulgarian manual alphabet) in both its one-handed and two-handed versions. Visual and tactile perception will also be challenged while some specific techniques are being used to communicate.

Some participants seem to do the fingerspelling with confidence, while others are apparently taking their first steps in it. All of them are doing each of the letters of the manual alphabet. They are doing this slowly and carefully, one after another. Ani is making sure all the participants are getting the finger positions right and is helping them in case they find the task particularly difficult. Since their fingers aren’t used to it, the participants are making funny mistakes while trying to make a certain configuration of signs. This leaves room for a pleasing conversation on the origin and meaning of many of the sings used by deaf people. The one-handed manual alphabet is meant to depict Bulgarian letter configurations with maximum accuracy. The two-handed alphabet lets people move their hands with less restrictions of their posture. Two examples are you could show your ear to denote the letter ‘u’ (‘у’) and your teeth to denote the letter ‘z’(‘з’). Deaf people could still see what you’re depicting, so it all makes sense to them. Deafblind people, on the other hand, need tactile sign language to make sense of the world. This is why one-handed manual alphabet is vastly used when communicating with them. You could, of course, make signs of your own in case you don’t know the sign language. As long as your signs are based on logic, they might not be the same as the ones used in the language, but they will still make sense.

I experienced the latter myself and the hosts invited me to share my story with the participants. Four years ago, I had a job as a social work assistant at the Regional department of the Union of the Deaf in Bulgaria. Deaf people would constantly reach me for a conversation. I didn’t know the sign language well for I never had to use it before. I knew the basics, so that I could speak to people with hearing impairments. It turned out the people I had to aid were of different age and they used different signs, some of which I had never seen before. I managed to understand what they meant, but I had to make sure they got my message right. You might guess they relied mostly on signs while they were communicating. Hence, they didn’t need to speak with their mouth or look at my mouth when I was speaking to them. I would carefully look at them as they were communicating with each other while they were waiting for their turn to visit my office. I learnt their signs, so that I could personalize the conversations I had with each one of them. Of course, I sometimes had to use my logic to explain the questions I was asking or the things they were supposed to do. I wasn’t sure if I was using the right signs. The deaf people weren’t angry at me. Quite to the contrary, they encouraged me to learn the signs and they showed me some universal signs. It somehow worked for me. That was the time I’ve had the most enriching experience doing something beneficial. The most important thing about it was we developed wonderful harmonic relations as I was learning the signs and they were helping me do it. We used to do this together. I’m still good friends with these people.

The purpose of every kind of communication is to reach the point of mutual understanding on all levels. You need to use the proper language, show the corresponding emotions and do whatever else comes to your mind to make sure you’re getting it right and are being understood. When you’re communicating with a person who is lacking more than one sense, they come to use their remaining senses, which have become overly active to compensate for the lost ones. This is a huge boost to both inner and outer sensitivity (each type with direction as follows: towards the self and towards the outside world and the others around). There are so many ways to express yourself through gestures and movements without using words, so that even people with intact senses will understand you. This is why Ani asked the participants to tell us about their day doing it in pantomime. Each of them had 3 minutes to show us their mornings and afternoons making sings and faces. We had a good laugh with one  difficult choice of clothes, forgotten belongings, conversations with children and funny situations with dogs. It’s curious to know that none of the participants acted out any moments  of privacy or intimacy. Such everyday moments are both essential and hard to understand for the deafblind people, especially if they are in their childhood years.

How do you tell a deafblind child about time? What do you mean by past and future? The only real idea of time these children have had is the present moment at this current place. Can you imagine what it’s like to always live in the present? One thing you should have in mind is a deafblind child needs less sleep since they don’t experience visual fatigue. They also don’t know the everyday objects, but they need to learn about them, so that they could be independent. It’s essential that they gain autonomy, especially in terms of personal hygiene and intimate matters. These are activities a person needs to deal with on their own starting from a very young age. Maria Popova, Goshko’s mother, came to give us an insider’s look into the way a deafblind person faces these matters. She also suggested a few things to try out in such cases. She told us about the so called ‘calendar system’ invented by Jan van Dijk. The latter has managed to explain the concepts of sequence of actions and time. Objects that are meaningful to the child are used to symbolize different actions associated with them. One object needs to be used to do one particular activity over time, so that the child could learn to make the object – activity connection. Goshko is learning to associate miniature everyday objects with their real-size counterparts and the activities related to them. It’s important to choose appropriate objects, so that they aren’t simply tiny copies of real objects, but they also have parts that could be touched and will help the child recognize them as analogues to the real-size objects. For example, if you’re about to have a trip, you need to show the child the buckle of a seatbelt, so that they’ll know they’re about to travel. A tiny model of a car or a bus will not do the job in this case since the child has no idea what they look like. Of course, it’s not possible to use object symbols in every case, but that’s a good idea to start with when it comes to basic objects and concepts. After all, anything you touch makes you react to it. Somewhere in this tactile contact, there’s a key to the two-way communication with deafblind people.

13th of May, Sunday.  It’s sunny and overwhelmingly green again. Goshko will visit us in the Hall today and everybody is moved to meet him. Today we’ll be speaking about haptic communication. The latter is what I call sensitivity in action. It’s a two-way exchange process where all the elements of communication with deafblind people are present. You could use haptic signals to assist or guide a deafblind person, as well as give them interpretations and basically translate the world and the events happening for them. The participants are carefully listening to Ani as she explains and demonstrates the appropriate hand positions in the guidance of blind people. Soon after that, they will have to work in pairs, each person playing the role of guide, followed by the one of a guided person.

When all the participants were given the instructions, they left the Hall. Guides and guided people were going about the lanes of the seagarden getting the attention and sheer curiosity of bystanders of all ages. ‘The game’ must have looked amusing to the people watching. The guided people were wearing orange blindfolds to walk into the shoes of blind people. The world around you is easy to explore when you’re moving around and there’s a guide by your side. The guide is there to give you directions with light moves telling you when to take a turn, make a turnaround, stop moving or start walking. They are also there to tell you what’s going on around you and be your interpreter and translator. They will print letters on your palm, paint with their fingers on your back to tell you where objects in a room are located, or use sign language to show you the world around you (people, running dogs, bicycles going about, children, sand, sea and so on). 

To top it off, the early afternoon session in Hall 1 was dedicated to the demonstration of tactile sign language. The participants were working in pairs, learning to print letters on each other’s palms and recognize the printed letters. When the guided people knew what letters they were shown, they had to make the corresponding letters using one-handed fingerspelling. The guides learned how to take a blind person to an interlocutor, introduce them to each other, feel the magic of sensitivity and get to know every person involved in the situation including themselves. They could share the feelings they had when they put the orange blindfold to cover their eyes and hide the world from them. They could let sensitivity speak out.

I believe the people who got immersed in the world of deafblind persons during the week-long event, will never forget the journey they had in the Universe of perceived stimuli. Now that the process has started, I hope there will be many more journeys to take and discoveries to make. Finally, the miracle will happen and they will get the much anticipated feedback who will tell us about the World of deafblind children. Let it be! 

You could find photos of the event inside the Gallery of the Site.

Article, photographs and collage by Christina Tchoparova

EN Translation by: Maria Mihailova


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