Making his way around the Redwood artwork, Jason “Jaz” Herbers touches the dips and grooves of the human figures carved into the wood on the statue outside the Newport Visual Arts Center.
While it might not be an unusual sight to see someone marveling over “Absence of Emptiness,” as the statue is titled, Herber’s experience of the statue might be unusual, to some — he is both blind and deaf.
“At first, I was kind of confused about what it was,” Herbers said through an interpreter. “I was really touching and kind of investigating. I touched it a lot. There’s a lot of information there, and it wasn’t completely making sense to me. There’s a lot of different things going on with that statue.”
Herbers, a consultant for the DeafBlind Interpreting National Training & Resource Center at Western Oregon University, was one of 36 participants at a Newport retreat organized by the center on Wednesday, Aug. 8. Along with seven interpreters, those who are learning how to become ProTactile American Sign Language (PTASL) interpreters explored Newport, went down to the beach and wandered around the city’s Bayfront.
“We definitely want to get in touch with Newport,” said Jelica Nuccio, who is also a DeafBlind person, PTASL interpreter and one of two inventors of the PTASL language. “We want to take advantage of the resources we can avail ourselves of here.”
DeafBlind, the term those who are deaf and blind use to describe themselves and their community, gave rise to the form of American Sign Language (ASL) DeafBlind people use to communicate, PTASL. This type of sign language differs from the more commonly recognized ASL, which people can see. Since those who are DeafBlind can’t see, ASL is useless to them.
“DeafBlind people, their language is emerging to be distinct from visual ASL to be on the body, as opposed to in the air,” said CM Hall, one of the co-directors of the center.
Since PTASL involves touch, the language is spoken by being in physical contact with the other person during signing. This way, gesturing and different kinds of touch on the body communicate information to someone who is DeafBlind.
“It has touch as a foundation, so it’s a completely different medium for language,” said Nuccio. “It establishes a ground of touch between me and the person I’m in contact with.”
PTASL is spoken not just by feeling the signs of the person someone is speaking to. Nonverbal cues and gestures, like a smile, an eye-roll or someone writing down what someone else is saying are all communicated via certain kinds of touch on the back, arms or shoulders.
“The folks behind me right now are giving me feedback about what your facial expressions are,” said Herbers. “If you’re laughing or smiling, they’re giving me that, so I understand what you are doing with your face right now on my back, so we’re connected even though we’re not physically in touch. I’m getting information through touch about what someone is giving to me.”
For example, if someone doesn’t understand what has been said, they might trace a question mark on the other person’s back. If someone is laughing, that is communicated by a tickling gesture on the shoulder, back or arm.
“I have someone behind me who’s giving me feedback and environmental information about what’s happening,” Herbers said of an interpreter connecting him with the people he talks to. “Touch is information, and it’s how we relate to one another.”
PTASL is a relatively new language developed in Seattle over the last several years. According to Nuccio, there is a large DeafBlind population there. In their interactions with each other, the language was born and grew.
“We were able to develop PTASL, a natural language, amongst ourselves,” Nuccio said. “And it grew from there.”
The DeafBlind Interpreting National Training & Resource Center at WOU was born out of a response to the development of PTASL, and serves primarily to teach the language to others and train more PTASL interpreters, according to the center’s website. The retreat to Newport was one way trainers at the center could teach the language to those training to become PTASL interpreters, all against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean and the Nye Beach sand.
“This provides an opportunity for them to have an environmental experience,” Hall said. “There’s different textures, and that gives them a much more enriching experience to kind of have a tactual connection. There’s more tactual opportunities to engage with the environment.”
Those at the PTASL workshop on the beach had just that opportunity Wednesday, when, after lunch at the Newport Visual Arts Center, they walked down to the sand, took their shoes off and sat in a tight-knit circle where they could be in physical contact with each other. Those training to become interpreters listened to Nuccio speak about not just the language itself, but learning new skills to engage with those who are DeafBlind.
This proved important, since at least a few of the participants Wednesday didn’t possess the skills from their previous ASL and PTASL experiences to communicate effectively with DeafBlind folks.
“When they have, in the past, done trainings with hearing and sighted professionals about how to work with DeafBlind people, what they’re finding is a lot of those strategies don’t actually work,” Nuccio said. “So what they’re learning here is from DeafBlind people how best to work with DeafBlind people.”
Nuccio also talked to those she trained, both DeafBlind and seeing and hearing, about how to move through the world with a DeafBlind person.
“I’m explaining things like how you would navigate some of those crowded areas, how you would open doors,” Nuccio said. “How you would meet other people as they’re walking by in traffic.”
Sitting on the sand, Nuccio also told her trainees what she experiences during a walk on the beach.
“I actually like walking on the beach, smelling the air,” she said. “I’m communicating with the people I’m training what I’m gaining, what my experiences are like as I go through.”