Paths to Literacy

for students who are blind or visually impaired

Using Tactile Sign Language to Read with a Child Who Is Deafblind

liam and mom reading a bookReading books is my son Liam’s favorite thing to do.  I have to say, I sure love reading with him and I love watching him enjoy books.  I need to share a quick back story on Liam for those of you who don’t know.  Liam was born with both vision and hearing.  When he was 2 ½ he became sick with Meningitis which resulted in his becoming deafblind.  To make a very long story short, after months in the hospital we were able to bring him home.  Admittedly it was overwhelming at first; our world was turned upside-down.  We needed to learn a new way to look at life and a new way to learn how to communicate with our son.  We decided that, although our life was now different, it will still be good-great even.  One of my first goals for Liam had to do with "books".  Liam used to LOVE reading before he lost his sight, and I was determined that he was going to be given the opportunity to LOVE books again.   The following videos are taken 3 years after Liam became sick with Meningitis.  I enjoy watching these videos and watching my boy enjoying reading.  What a blessing!  

How I read a book with my son who is deafblind:

My son communicates using Tactile American Sign Language (ASL).  When we first started reading with Liam, he didn’t know many signs.  I created books that had interesting textures and moving parts and many things to touch.  I would also use books to teach Liam ASL.  (See some of my earlier posts for examples of this:  Getting Books into the Hands of My 3-Year-Old Deafblind Son; Big and Small Book; Counting Book.)   Fast forward to the present:   I choose or create books based on Liam’s interests and also on the learning goals I may have for him.  As shown in the videos, I position myself in front of Liam at his level.  I sign into his left hand, which leaves his right hand to explore the text and the tactile graphics/objects and also sign back to me if he chooses.  You may notice that he sometimes feels the page and then puts his left hand out towards me.  This is signaling that he is ready to receive information about the page.   If I want to show him something on the page I make sure to use the ‘hand under hand’ technique instead of grabbing the tops of his hands and forcing him to touch whatever it is I wanted to show him.  

Liam and Braille:

I have always brailled all of Liam’s books since the beginning (exposure to braille as often as possible).  Liam is not "reading" the braille in the books yet, but he does  point out the braille to me and tell me “That’s braille”.  He loves finding the braille on a page.  He is learning to identify letters and words at school and connect meaning to the braille words.  We also functionally label our home in braille as well, which he enjoys showing me. (See my post Creating a Braille-Rich Environment. ) I am excited for the day when Liam can read stories in braille to me!  

Advice for anyone who wants to read with a child who is deafblind:

liam reading his bible book
Of course, I can only speak from my experience, but the biggest piece of advice I could give is to select or create a book based on the INTEREST of the child and the level of the child. For example if you want to read with a child who is just beginning to explore books and happens to like buttons, find all the different buttons you can and glue them to different pages of a book.  Add simple braille words to the pages as well.  Explore the pages together, following the child’s lead.  Let the child feel you touching the pages as well.  Introduce words such as button, small, big, etc.  Enjoy the book together!   Another example:  if your child likes the outdoors, create an outdoor book together (see How to Create an Experience Book) adding actual objects from outdoors to the book (tree bark, grass, rocks, etc..)  Add braille (simple words or sentences depending on level).  Encourage conversation and exploring of the pages.  After you have read it many times, ask questions about the pages, etc.

Liam and Mom Reading His Bible Book

*Turn on 'Closed Caption' for best viewing!

Liam and Mom Reading Number 2 Counting Book

*Turn on 'Closed Caption' for best viewing!
video blog collage




Awesome video!

Posted by cyralm

Getting started with tactile sign

Posted by lynn streets

Thank you SO much!  Those are

Posted by lynn streets

Tactile books

Posted by Diane Hall

Thank you for your blog. It is very helpful

Posted by Janna Lee

Posted on March 2, 2015
Updated on: February 7, 2018

Previous comments for Using Tactile Sign Language to Read with a Child Who Is Deafblind

Janna Lee commented on August 3, 2017

I loved your blog. I am an ASL interpreter who interacted with a Deafblind young man yesterday. Your ideas are inspired and inspiring others. Keep up the good work. I have a friend, Donna Robertson, who is a licensed "Intervener" working at the VIrginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Stanton, Virginia. God Bless You on your journey.

Janna Lee

Diane Hall commented on January 18, 2017

Here is the link to Oakmont Books for Liam's mom and other readers.

lynn streets commented on June 17, 2015

Thank you SO much!  Those are great resources to look into.  I really appreciate your help. :-)

Liamsmom commented on June 17, 2015
Thanks for your questions! 
I am not an "ASL" or "tactile ASL" expert, however, I am a parent who is learning all I can about ASL to be able to teach language to and communicate with my son.  The first place I started was taking local community ASL classes.  I also have found some deaf mentors who will face time with me to help support and improve my ASL skills.  There is also a program out there, I believe it is nationwide, that provides a deaf mentor/or someone who is fluent in ASL to tutor you and meet with you to teach you ASL.    This is a free service for family members.  I am also traveling out of state this summer to  go to an ASL immersion camp.  As far as tactile signing, I have kept in close contact with my states "Deafblind Program-Coordinator" for any questions.   It is also helpful to talk to your states school for the deaf or school for ideas. The National Center for Deaf-Blindness has some great resources and information as well    I know this is a lot of information but hope it helps!   
To answer your questions about her 'arms being stiff' that may be a great question for her Physical Therapist or Occupational Therapist.  You can modify your signs for one hand, however, it is recommended when teaching a child tactile sign language to use BOTH hands while they are learning so they can feel correct form and placement of the signs.  My son can use one hand or both but that is after a LOT of practice.  I still use both hands when introducing new words or if I see that maybe he needs more explanation for something.
lynn streets commented on June 16, 2015

Can you recommend any books or resources for getting started?  I have learned a few signs from that I think would be good to start with.  Her arms are a bit stiff.  How can I help her loosen up and stretch out?  Do you modify 2 handed signs so the child can use just one hand to feel your sign?  Thank you for any help.  The video was very helpful.  You're doing a great job and it is so encouraging!  Thanks so much

cyralm commented on May 26, 2015

I cannot get over his eagerly stretched out left hand!  This is a dynamic and interactive activity that is a joy to watch.  Thanks for sharing.