Towards Protactile Solidarity & Cultural Exchange




American Sign Language Version: coming soon 

English Version:

What is Protactile?

Hello, allow me to share about my study abroad experience as a Protactile (PT) user in a semi-mainstream environment in Madrid, Spain—a predominantly Deaf sighted and visual signing space. PT includes philosophy, language, culture, politics, et cetera, which shapes the lives of many DeafBlind people. When I traveled to Madrid Spain with my class, it took about 11-12 hours. While traveling I experienced the usual avoidant behaviors from airport and flight attendants.

To elaborate, my whole life as a DeafBlind person, people generally tended to be avoidant because perhaps they did not know how to communicate with me, did not want or have the patience to deal with or accommodate folks like me. I have grown accustomed to this kind of avoidant behavior in various forms for whatever reasons. This avoidant behavior is one of the characteristics of  “distantism,” (JLC, 2017), a concept coined by John Lee Clark, a famous DeafBlind poet and writer. Although these experiences were not named until 2017, the effects of distantism have long been felt for centuries. “Protactile: The DeafBlind Way” was founded over ten years ago by aj granda and Jelica Nuccio to reduce distantism experienced by many DeafBlind people in visual signing spaces.


While Felix signing, two classmates using ProTactile backchannels
While Felix signs, two classmates respond using Protactile backchanneling (one signs an emphatic ASL “yes” nod on Felix’s upper arm; the other less visible, taps with open palm for ASL nod on his other arm as if “listening”).

Leading by Example

 As I traveled towards Spain, I wondered if I would have the same distantist experience in Madrid. However, the next day when I arrived in Madrid, our group had an activity planned for that day—checking out a variety of items at a local flea market…an enormous flea market. As we were getting ready to go, one of my study abroad classmates, Alberto Sifuentes, approached me and offered to guide me and PT. That was really nice.

It just so happens he has had many years of experience with DeafBlind people. So, we paired up and he guided me along with the group. We browsed around for a while and noticed an interesting item, a Coke bottle with a cap on top. If you zoomed in inside the cap, there was a miniature artwork. My group mate described it to me and described more about the various caps with miniature artworks inside. We continued to check out other items as he described them. It was very thoughtful that he offered this support to me.

Our interaction caught the attention of the other classmates. The group eventually followed our example. Little by little, my other classmates, in turn, also offered to PT. For example, at lunchtime, they PT described the food and its ingredients and where to find forks and cups for drinks using “PT mapping.” PT mapping allows me to find these items and places myself. Other times, they learned how to guide me when certain environments were a bit trickier to navigate. This support was very thoughtful.

Additionally, for one of my classes, there was a shortage of qualified Protactile interpreters. To compensate for this shortage, the students volunteered and took turns shadowing my other classmates’ signed comments and filling me in on my surroundings. This added support was wonderful. Eventually, when we went out as a group to a tapas bar, my group mates took turns learning how to respond and connect using “PT backchanneling” in conjunction with facial gestures not otherwise accessible in visual sign language (i.e. nods, smiles, laughs, surprised/shocked, etc.). We carried on for a while and had a great time chatting and connecting. It was quite a process. 

Towards Protactile Solidarity

To reinforce PT awareness, Alberto and I spontaneously collaborated on a Protactile 101 vlog demonstrating PT for our sighted signing peers. Our classmates thoroughly reviewed it. Soon after, my classmates quickly picked up PT. Consequently, they started to ask me more questions and I answered their questions. They became more motivated to be involved in the PT approach to connecting with me and it got better from there.

To elaborate, per my recommendation, my study abroad class received an introductory Protactile training from a Latina DeafBlind Protactile trainer, Yashaira Romilus at Gallaudet University. She also happens to be an actress and is one of the founders of Protactile Theatre. Hence, it was helpful to have reinforcement from Deaf and hearing sighted comrades throughout my study abroad program, especially during my journey with dramatic arts. If there’s one thing I learned is the value of collaboration and we had a successful theatre debut.

 Towards Cultural Exchange

Not only did my group mates learn to Protactile, our interactions caught the attention of the local Deaf Spaniards at a local Deaf film festival in Valencia, at the celebration to honor LSE in Madrid as well as at the theatre debut. The locals have never seen the Protactile approach to connecting with DeafBlind people. They were so fascinated that they asked me how to PT. I explained a bit about PT mapping which can take place on my back or in the palm of my hand to get a better sense of my surroundings. I also showed them how to respond and demonstrate emotions that would otherwise not be visible in visual sign languages such as nodding, laughing, or giving a puzzled look, etc. 

I have also interacted with the local DeafBlind community and it seemed most have not yet experienced the Protactile approach. Additionally, when opportunities arose to demonstrate Protactile to them, one DeafBlind individual and I were abruptly interrupted. We were interrupted in a way hearing nonsigners interrupt a hearing signer communicating with a Deaf person (audism). Hearing allies usually give hearing nonsigners the hand motioning they’re still communicating with their Deaf friend or client.

Deaf people interrupt each other by either reading the room, gauging the conversation for the more appropriate time to interrupt or by simply interrupting and overlapping each other like hearing people do to one another when discussions can get excited or heated. Nonetheless, these are sight-based examples. For many DeafBlind people, the Protactile way can be more empowering as it can be disempowering to take away one’s autonomy to decide whether or not to interact with another individual (vidism and distantism). There are Protactile ways to interrupt for nonemergency and emergency situations.

Allow me to explain. Placing one’s palm on a DeafBlind’s shoulder lets them know you’re standing there and waiting to communicate with them after they finish their conversation. Placing two fingers like the ASL or LSE “watch/look” on their shoulders, means you’re watching the conversation. Maybe they will want to know who you are and give you a chance to identify yourself. When you do, the conversation may either continue or they’ll let you know if it’s a private conversation. If you’re allowed to watch, you can PT backchannel as you’re watching their conversation and maybe even join by ambi-signing (signing under each participants’ hand at the same time).

In this manner, all parties are able to participate in a more real-time fashion. If there’s an emergency like a fire or an earthquake, you draw an “X” on their palms or their backs and calmly vacate the premises while guiding them. This is the Protactile way. Unfortunately, I have not yet demonstrated to my sighted signing peers how to interrupt; so, the local sighted signers did not yet know how to PT interrupt and, instead, abruptly interrupted our conversation and we got distracted. We missed our opportunity for cultural exchange. 

Why Learn Protactile?

Inspired by my comrades’ growth, I asked them why they decided to be more involved in learning PT, guiding and supporting me. The following 5 reasons were gleaned from this discussion: 1) Prior to leaving for Madrid, Spain, our class, at Gallaudet University in USA, had an introductory workshop by a DeafBlind Protactile trainer to expose them to the Protactile approach; 2) Deaf sighted comrade, Alberto and I  set a great example for others to follow as well as provided an ad hoc, easy-to-follow Protactile 101 “demo” vlog; 3)

A couple of others in my group decided to offer to guide or learn to PT because they have a family member who is DeafBlind and like to help out as much as they can; in turn, offered to support me; 4) One of my group mates, whose goal is to become a CDI, wanted to expand his skill set to better serve DeafBlind clients who need it; 5) Lastly, the reason, which touched me deeply, was the desire to connect and open up their world to more possibilities for connections. 

With Much Gratitude

Overall, wow, what an experience! If weren’t for the pre-departure introductory Protactile training to my study abroad classmates at Gallaudet University, as well as the collaboration with Alberto and allyship of our Deaf and hearing sighted signing comrades, studying abroad would have been quite a different experience. Thank you, my comrades, for working in solidarity with me.

I believe our model of collaboration will make a difference in the lives of other Deaf sighted and DeafBlind students from different backgrounds who may also wish to study abroad together. For more in-depth Protactile training, please sign up for free online training at DeafBlind Interpreting Institute, DBII (local hands-on mentorship available in areas with higher concentrations of DeafBlind people). DeafBlind people as well as those who live or work with DeafBlind people are also welcome to sign up. Thank you for visiting!

Author’s Note: This intensive study abroad program was from June 1st-30th, 2019.