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It’s not often a new language emerges.

But in the last 15 years, a new language was born right here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s called Protactile, and it was created by a group of DeafBlind people who prioritize touch.

One of the people at the center of creating this new language is Jelica Nuccio. She recently moved to Monmouth, Oregon, where Western Oregon University just received a grant for $2.1 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) to help train Protactile language interpreters.

DeafBlind people have traditionally used variations on sign language to communicate, but it can be easy to miss important details in a language that is designed to be seen. “We can’t grow if we always are only getting things second hand from other people who are seeing them in the world firsthand because people are uncomfortable shifting to a tactile ground,” says Nuccio. “There have been years and years and years of isolation for DeafBlind people.”

Protactile was born when Nuccio first took over the Deaf-Blind Service Center in Seattle. At that point, she began to advocate for DeafBlind people to communicate with each other without the use of interpreters. “I said no, we don’t need interpreters between us in our midst 24/7. We can run this thing ourselves directly in contact with one another,” said Nuccio.

The original intention was not to create a language: it was simply to be in communication with each other directly. “Once we got in touch we realized that we were happening upon some different communication practices,” says Nuccio, “so we brought in some other DeafBlind people and we started interacting using those communication practices, we got a linguistic anthropologist involved. We basically created a space where everyone is DeafBlind and Protactile and asked: ‘If the world was just full of DeafBlind people - there were no hearing or sighted people on the planet - what would we do? How would we do it?’”

Nuccio says the experience of learning and creating the Protactile language has changed her life. She now runs a business called Tactile Communications, which trains DeafBlind individuals to be more autonomous. She is also the lead trainer for the DeafBlind Interpreting Institute at Western Oregon University. “I really realized how devoid of the human experience information can be when people aren’t connected and touched directly,” says Nuccio. “So touch and Protactile language is the foundation for my life. It truly is. I mean, it allows me to function in the world.”


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by volunteers:

Dave Miller:

This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. It’s not often that a new language is created. American Sign Language emerged in the early 1800s, Esperanto was invented at the end of that century. But in the last 15 years, a new language was born right here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s called Protactile, and it was created by a group of people in the DeafBlind community.

People who lack both sight and hearing have traditionally used variations on sign language to communicate, but it can be easy for DeafBlind people to miss important details when they’re communicating in a language that was designed to be seen.

One of the people at the center of this new language is Jelica Nuccio. She recently moved to Monmouth, Oregon. Western Oregon University’s DeafBlind Interpreting: National Training and Resource Center is there. They recently received a $2.1 million grant to help train Protactile language interpreters. We went to Monmouth last month to learn about Protactile. I asked Jelica to introduce herself.

Jelica Nuccio:

So I was born in Croatia and I did not get any language there as a youngster. My family moved to America and you’re right at that point, I did learn American Sign Language. At that point I could see, and I didn’t know necessarily that my vision would change.

So I went through school using American Sign Language, majored in a few different things. Got my last degree at Emory University, my graduate degree. And it was at that point that I became more or less connected with the DeafBlind community and I relocated to Seattle. Once I got connected with the DeafBlind community, I moved to Seattle from Atlanta and I lived in Seattle for 20 years.

So I worked in advocacy, worked on public transportation access for DeafBlind people there. I gave training to bus drivers. And of course this whole time, I’m living independently as are most of the DeafBlind people in the Seattle area. I was the director for the DeafBlind Service Center in Seattle. And at that time, I was involved heavily with the University of Washington and some of the programs that they had there.

So there was a lot of infrastructure, a lot of advocacy work. And so the community existed there, but I realized, and many of us realized, that we were really only getting half of the information that we could have been getting because of the access model that was in place at the time.

Dave Miller:

The voice you’re hearing there is Halene Anderson, a Protactile interpreter who helped me to communicate with Jelica. Despite all of the research I’d done beforehand, I have to say I just was not prepared for the physicality of the experience.

Jelica and I were close enough together that our knees were essentially interlaced. One of my hands was on one of her knees, most of the time, that’s how she knew I was paying attention to her. Jelica used my other hand, my whole upper body really, to communicate physically. And it was so fast.

She’d make a shape out of my fingers or my hands, and then manipulate it with hers. Sometimes she would draw my hand towards her chest or mine in big movements or small ones. Basically she was using Protactile to communicate about Protactile. And because I couldn’t understand that language, her interpreter, Halene, was watching all the physical communication in real time and putting it into spoken English.

And then when I was speaking, the exchange went in the reverse way with Halene, physically communicating my spoken words to Jelica. We’ve put a video on our website if you want to check it out. There was a moment early on where I started to understand how Protactile works. I’d asked Jelica how the language has grown since its beginnings in Seattle.

Jelica Nuccio:

For 15 years, the past 15 years with the inception of Protactile language, and it has grown as you’re feeling me grow on your hand. And it’s been really a ground swell of response and a huge social justice movement as well as emergence of a language, of Protactile language and values.

Dave Miller:

Could I interrupt one second, what was the fingers intertwining movement there?

Jelica Nuccio:

Sure. Okay. So I’d said in the context we were talking about Oregon starting from scratch because Oregon doesn’t have a very large DeafBlind community, at least not a Protactile DeafBlind community. And so it’s the growing process, the growth that you’re feeling in the intricacies of your fingers, how it started from underground, and then it’s come up through the soil and then it’s moved up your forearm, bicep, across your chest and then shaking you back and forth because that’s the foundational change that this movement has garnered. So that’s me describing in Protactile language, the Protactile movement and what happens when it’s spread across first Seattle and then all across the nation.

Dave Miller:

It took a while for me to figure out the rhythm of this conversation because I’d never experienced anything like it before. For example, I didn’t even know how to interrupt to ask a follow up question.

Jelica Nuccio:

You can trace a question mark on my leg and then tap me. And I’ll go, “Oh, okay. You’ve got something to share.”

Dave Miller:

I’m going to use that with politicians I talk to from now on.

Jelica Nuccio:

Yeah. Everything just is in touch. This, also gripping can be, “Oh, stop for just a second.” It’s giving the basic feeling of backchanneling, which is not language in and of itself, it’s more of a foundation for how we connect, share joint attention as we communicate.

So hearing people do that by giving some auditory cues, “mm”, “uh-huh”, “yeah”, “oh”, “right”, and so people know how the turn-taking is going to go and how their message is being received by the person receiving it. So it’s natural, and usually we pick these things up before we actually learn language, and so it’s the same thing here with touch.

Dave Miller:

The Protactile language was born when Jelica first took over the DeafBlind Service Center in Seattle. At that point, she began to advocate for DeafBlind people to be able to communicate with each other without the use of interpreters. I asked her if that was difficult.

Jelica Nuccio:

People, even DeafBlind people, they challenged me. They challenged what I was doing with the system. They did so by saying I need an interpreter all the time. As a DeafBlind director, I said, “No, we don’t need interpreters between us in our midst 24/7. No, we can run this thing ourselves directly in contact with one another.”

So Deaf people obviously cherish American Sign Language and the language that they learned. So we would ask the Deaf people in our midst, can you please not use visual ASL. It is all about facial expressions. I mean, half the language is on the face, which we don’t have tactile access to. Their grammar is based on movement in airspace and articulating different handshapes that are also difficult for us to discern.

It becomes really tenuous for us. And then with touch being taboo, that also was a very oppressive scenario for us to try to create a situation that was a prime situation for tactile language to emerge. People in general, think that touch is about love, about affection. And for us, that’s not the point at all.

Touch can mean a myriad of things. I mean, you have different sensory receptors in your skin, Dave, some on the surface, some deeper into the muscle, some closer to the bone and all of that is used in Protactile language. Now because it feels different because there’s different qualities of feeling that becomes the language essentially, it’s a grammar of touch. But people who don’t use touch don’t think in those terms.

And so for us, touch was the number one value. We needed to get in touch, not just with each other but with the world around us and to overcome that touch taboo. And so the DeafBlind Service Center, we said, “When you enter this area, this is a Protactile zone and you’re going to be in touch with us. You’re not going to be signing off to the side using American Sign Language that we don’t have access to.” And so there was a lot of education involved in getting people to shift, to attune to the tactile environment and what information can be gleaned from sharing that tactile environment.

Dave Miller:

Did you get pushback?

Jelica Nuccio:

Yes. There was some resistance because the eyes are very, very powerful and people also have... It’s a sense of privilege, you can see things directly and people didn’t want to let go of that, but that doesn’t mean, because that then is oppressive to us.

And so we can’t grow if we always are only getting things secondhand from other people who are seeing them in the world firsthand because people are uncomfortable shifting to a tactile ground. There have been years and years and years of isolation for DeafBlind people.

And in fact, the federal definition of ‘DeafBlindness’ if you look at it, people say it’s the severest of disabilities because of isolation. But the isolation isn’t due to a person’s seeing or hearing or lack thereof, the isolation is because of attitudes and values of majority culture that doesn’t allow for Protactile ethos to emerge.

And so what we are doing is connecting more with one another directly as opposed to having an interpreter, again, privileging sighted information and getting that indirectly. We said, “No, we’re going to stop that.” And it wasn’t comfortable for some people. But we said, “No, we want this to be reciprocal. Not just information coming into us, but we want to be the game changers in our world. We want information to be going out from us also and for co-presence to be able to occur.”

Dave Miller:

Did you know you were creating a language or were you just trying to figure out better ways to communicate with friends and people around you? I mean, were you consciously saying, we’re going to make a new language?

Jelica Nuccio:

I’m glad you asked that question, Dave, because not at all. It’s not something that was invented. So when I was at the DeafBlind Service Center, I had a couple of colleagues, and so the three of us is where it really started because we got rid of the interpreters.

Dave Miller:

Get out! [laughs]

Jelica Nuccio:

Yes. Get out! [laughs] Right! We don’t need you coming into the space, we can touch each other, touch our surroundings. We’re just fine. And even if it was, oh, but it saves time to get somebody in who can quickly look around the space and tell us what’s in it as opposed to us walking around and touching it ourselves. Again, that’s going to be a sighted hearing value, time and efficiency, not the DeafBlind value where touching and getting information directly is paramount.

So for us, once we got in touch, we realized that we were happening upon some different communication practices. And so we brought in some other DeafBlind people and we started interacting using those communication practices. We got a linguistic anthropologist involved.

And so we basically created a space where in this space everyone’s DeafBlind and Protactile. And if the world was just full of DeafBlind people, there were no hearing or sighted people on the planet, what would we do? Right? How would we do it?

And some people were like, “Oh no, I can’t live without the sighted support service provider, or whatever. I can’t let go of this person.” So it was a process for sure. But the Protactile movement has spread, I mean, like wildfire. People have recognized that they need to have these authentic connections and authentic relationships with other people.

Dave Miller:

I may be wrong about this, but I think you are both a teacher of teachers, of Protactile and of students, people who aren’t going to become teachers themselves, is that right?

Jelica Nuccio:

Right.

Dave Miller: I’m so curious where you start, not with somebody who’s going to become a teacher but somebody, maybe a young person, who’s learning this language for the first time. They come to you, how do you teach somebody who’s DeafBlind to communicate fully in this way?

Jelica Nuccio:

So there’s a Protactile house, PT house that exists in Monmouth, Oregon, and it’s hallowed Protactile space where people enter that, it’s sacred. You’re automatically in a Protactile zone. And there are some people who learn Protactile. They might not use it again. They might go, “Oh, this is what this is. Okay.”

But Protactile language, like you said, to really get immersed in it, it’s a language that is distinct from American Sign Language. So American Sign Language has a whole different grammar, whole different system than Protactile. So for example, in ASL to say “nice to meet you”, you would do it this way. [Signing in ASL] NICE MEET YOU. That’s ASL. In Protactile, people think, “Oh, well, I’ll just take your hand and sign NICE and MEET and then YOU. So I’ll just make what’s the visual components of ASL, and I’ll just put them into a tactile modality.”

Dave Miller:

To try to translate the visual hands of ASL and to turn it into hands touching each other.

Jelica Nuccio:

Right, but to do so in a way that actually breaks the rules of Protactile.

Dave Miller:

How does that break the rule of Protactile?

Jelica Nuccio:

So ASL is a language that is articulated through two hands. It’s a natural language, two-hand articulation. In Protactile, we’re using four hands but we’re still incorporating the phonology of American Sign Language, which is not natural [Dave takes a big breath as he realizes what is happening].

Dave Miller:

I just realized this for the first time, really realizing a lot, but you are using my hands at times to do things to my hands. You’re not just things with your hands that I can touch, but you are actually manipulating my hands as well.

Jelica Nuccio:

Yes. And that is a part of Protactile. Let me explain a little bit more. Let’s go into the linguistics now.

Dave Miller:

Let’s do it. [laughs]

Jelica Nuccio:

[Laughs] So hearing people will articulate “nice to meet you” with phonemes that are auditorily perceived using the voice, using sound. Now that’s also one modality. So how would you transfer phonemes from that modality into a visual realm? You absolutely can’t because those things aren’t visually discernible, that, “M”, “N”, sounds are not visually discernible.

And so what happens is they get changed or other things emerge in American Sign Language that have a phonology of their own. And that’s what has happened between American Sign Language and Protactile language. Protactile language has emerged with its own phonological system. And so there are different functions that each of the four arms that you and I are sharing to talk in Protactile language. Each has its own role, and these have become conventionalized.

And so today when you and I are talking, we actually have and are still getting at a lot of linguistic data that we’ve amassed since we started studying Protactile language. So let’s take the example of a tree. I’m going to tap the back of your left hand and I’m going to prompt you to give me this arm and I’m going to touch your body like you were describing before, Dave.

I’m going to take your arm, you’re feeling… So we’ve got all four arms in play. Your fourth articulator is on the back of my first articulator, my first hand one. Now we’re left with hands two and hands three. So right here, your right arm is an object. It’s called a Proprioceptive Object because you’re able to feel what I’m doing to it.

So right now you’ve got your fingers spread upward, like branches of a tree. You can feel that because it’s your own arm and your own fingers that are spread. I’m chopping down the base of the tree and the whole tree is falling as if to the ground. And then now you’re walking across that trunk of the tree, and it’s wobbling and rocking and then you’re sitting down. But you can feel everything that’s happening in your own body.

So that’s what it would be like to chop a tree down, have it fall maybe over a ravine or something, and you walk across it unsteadily in Protactile language. So I’m using your arm and you’re feeling everything directly. None of that has any ASL. I’m not also using any fingerspelling either, instead I’m using these fingers.

Now what’s happening? Now I’m cutting or clipping the tips of your fingers. And you can feel bits that are falling down your forearm and onto your leg. So cutting down the branches. And now this movement, it shows that it’s not straight, that things are moving, that things are shifting because there’s water going underneath it. This is what I’m describing and you feel everything directly on your body. And our other two hands are coordinated to give you what we call those movement contacts.

Now I’m going to do it in ASL. All in airspace; very, very different.

[Interpreter interjects to inform Jelica that Dave’s eyes are still closed from when he closed them to feel the tree being cut down in Protactile language.]

Jelica Nuccio: I’ll do it again. Now open your eyes, Dave.

Dave Miller:

I guess I totally take your point. I don’t understand how I would understand you if I couldn’t see you when you were doing ASL, I mean, it doesn’t seem possible.

Jelica Nuccio:

Yeah. And that’s a key point because even though your hand is on my hand, so there’s some ‘tactile nature’ involved but you’re not getting any of the information. That’s the oppression the DeafBlind people faced. People thinking, “Well, just put your hands on my hands and we can sign ASL really close up in your face or really far back away from you and try to get into the field of vision that you may still have.”

And so that was really tenuous for us. And it made our lives really, really difficult. And so it got to a point where we were essentially learning from history, learning the mistakes that we didn’t want to recreate. So with Protactile, when things started...

Well, in general if you have a system and you want to change that system, for us, it started with establishing a ground of touch, a shared tactile ground and then it impacted our autonomy. We were able to exercise much greater autonomy with that touch and then we were able to achieve some systems change. But it all really starts with touch, that’s the foundation.

Dave Miller:

How did you all, because there was a small group of you to begin with and clearly this community has grown a lot, but was it up to a small group of people at first to say, this is going to be a “tree”, this is going to be a “tree being cut down”, this is the “river underneath it”?

Jelica Nuccio:

Well, we didn’t have to come up with ‘any of that’. It was there because our tactile intuitions were there and intact. Because we are feeling things in our world, we know what these things feel like. And so those things can actually be taken and used in language directly.

And so that’s where all of us have come together and intuitively it’s our intuitions. Just things feel right. And so we run with it and then we say, “Oh, that feels great! Yes, that feels just like this!” And then we start to use that and then we run with that, and we’re all getting together.

Now the coronavirus has dampened a lot of the... not the progress, no, we’re still making progress. We’re all headed to Chicago in a short time to do some more linguistic research. Research, it’s ongoing and we’re hardly keeping a pace with some of the changes in the language, but we want to definitely all get together and not be isolated, which COVID has definitely been isolating for many of us.

But it takes community to grow language, you can’t, like you said, come up with something just on your own. It’s not that we’re coming up artificially, it’s that we’re getting into communication. So it’s organically emerging. So if you’re tracing print on palm, you’re tracing your name using written English on the palm, I can feel it but it’s not meant to be tactilely discernible. These shapes are meant to be discerned with the eye visually.

And so it’s more work and we can feel that, we can feel that it’s not intuitive. It doesn’t arise from anything that we use on a daily basis for goodness sakes. I’m using Braille, not written English. And so it’s these things, these nuances that come up and us getting together and sharing, and then now we are training interpreters.

And then also having friends and interpreters who are members of the community who get together, who also then can glean some of those intuitions that those of us in the community are hitting upon. And frankly, what’s fostering growth of Protactile Language. So it spreads from there. But what it is, is that the structural framework actually matches again, the tactile world and the tactile space around us.

Dave Miller:

[Takes a deep breath] What do you remember emotionally about those early days when you together were creating or uncovering an intuitive physical language? I wonder what that was like emotionally.

Jelica Nuccio:

So when there were sighted people in our space, it was hard for us to really feel anything because sighted privilege and power was there and it sort of drowned out the feelings that we could have if we were in touch with one another directly. Getting in touch with one another directly, we could feel that connection very deeply. And it wasn’t just because, oh, I’m DeafBlind and you’re DeafBlind therefore we automatically feel some sort of magical connection. No, it’s because those things that we are feeling from one another aren’t drowned out by ‘sighted noise’.

And so it was definitely feeling like things clicked, feeling like we had hit on something that we shared and understood. And so these references that we were able to co-reference together, we ate together, we would drink Pinot together. [Dave and Jelica laugh] I would say, “How are we pouring the wine?” How are we knowing how much do you want in your cup, Dave?

And so if I’m DeafBlind and you’re DeafBlind, we have to figure out how we’re going to figure out how much wine is in. So we dip a finger in and we go, “Oh, okay. It’s wow. It’s really close to the top or, oh, it’s actually not full enough. We want to pour some more, we want to top you off.” [All laughing]

Dave Miller:

I mean, it’s been impossible for me in the moment, to try to come anywhere close to describing what you’re doing with my hands as we go because it’s too much, it’s too complicated, but just to give one example so our radio audience can get it. You turned my right hand into the top of a wine glass, and then, then you put your finger in to show me and you how much wine should be in it and then put your finger in your mouth to complete it.

Jelica Nuccio:

Yes, exactly. So I’m taking your hand, I’m using my right hand. I mean, I’m holding your hand with one hand and with the other I’m pouring in the substance.

Dave Miller:

Now the finger’s going in to pour it.

Jelica Nuccio:

Now the finger’s going in…to feel how much is in the cup or the glass, [Dave gasps in understanding] the wine glass, and I’ve shorted you. [All laugh] We need more, more, more, that pulling on your forearm and then pouring more in. So we don’t need sighted people to pour wine for us, for goodness sakes.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

We can be involved in the experience together and it’s very comfortable and it’s very natural and it’s not like, oh, well we have to do this. We can’t put our finger around the cup because that’s not polite, that’s not what we do in sighted company. No, it doesn’t matter a sighted company. We are enjoying the experience of smelling the wine together, of tasting, “ooh, this taste like it’s going to be really great”. Here you go, enjoy your wine.

Dave Miller:

This does make me wonder, you talked about not having the sighted person concern about, “Oh no, we can’t do this. We can’t put our finger in the wine glass.” That connects to a larger issue of questions of physical space, and physical intimacy and touch. Not sexual intimacy, but I don’t think I’ve ever been this physically close to someone, let alone touching them the entire time, touching their leg or their arm, or being touched on my hands, ever.

I’ve been interviewing people for, I don’t know, 14 years and I’ve never had an experience like this for obvious reasons. [Jelica laughs] This is we’re communicating physically. That’s the whole point of my being here and learning about this language. But I’m wondering if you think that communicating this way creates a kind of emotional closeness to the people you’re talking to, even if you don’t even know them that well, if the physical proximity leads to an emotional connection.

Jelica Nuccio:

I would say, not necessarily.

Dave Miller:

Hmm.

Jelica Nuccio: I think that since you are hearing and sighted, you get a person’s tone of voice. You can hear if it’s melodious, mellifluous, all of the things, and you get how a person is maybe fluttering their eyelashes or giving you a side long glance or what their body posture is maybe communicating.

So all of that can happen, I think, all those intimacies can happen in the visual and auditory realm as well but those realms are distantist. And so when we come together, we aren’t thinking anything along the lines of emotional intimacy at all because-

Dave Miller:

You’re talking about basic things or you’re talking about whatever, it could be emotional, it could not, but being close to each other and touching does not enter into it.

Jelica Nuccio:

Right. Like us, so we’re close now but I don’t feel any kind of... there’s no emotional intimacy there. But I think for hearing and Deaf people that may feel like too much. They go, “Oh, let’s back it up off. Let’s create a little space.”

Dave Miller:

[Dave interjects after Jelica moves away from him] You just created space.

Jelica Nuccio:

It’s like a line as opposed to two points. Right now we’re touching at two points as opposed to touching all along the line. That’s the interface between both of our thighs. So now I can feel your tone. I could feel if you’re tense, if you’re relaxed, what your mood is, I feel all of that. But if we aren’t touching, all I get is your fingertips on my knee and I will misunderstand a lot and maybe not read appropriately into the emotion behind your comments.

Dave Miller:

So do you have a sense for my communication? Obviously I don’t communicate in Protactile, I’ve been doing my best to keep up with you, [Jelica laughs] but do you have a sense for my communication style based on the physical information I’ve given you?

Jelica Nuccio:

Yes, I do have a sense of that. And Protactile is a language, and I don’t expect you to know the whole language obviously, but just getting in touch gives us a foundation. It opens up a channel for us to then build on. And so now connecting through touch, not Protactile yet, just touch.

Protactile has a philosophy. And so this way that we are in touch, thigh to thigh here, establishes our modality. So you’re using your ears to get information, your eyes to get information. Some of that information may be emotional, may be sexual, but also it may just be information.

Same thing with touch. We’re in touch now, I can feel the sense of you. I get an idea of who you are as a person. I could feel that you are a relatively young man. I can feel that you’re athletic. I can feel that you are motivated and interested. You have a zest about you, but also that you have a contemplative sort of serious side. [Dave laughs, astonished that Jelica has picked up all of that information, and then Jelica joins in the laughter]

Dave Miller:

It’s weird- [Jelica and Dave still laughing as Jelica begins to interject]

Jelica Nuccio: So that’s what I’m receiving without language, below the level of language

Dave Miller:

That’s Jelica Nuccio, the founder of Tactile Communications. You’re actually hearing the voice of her interpreter, Halene Anderson. We’ll have more from Jelica including what Monmouth means to the DeafBlind community after a break.

From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Today we’re learning about a new language called Protactile. It’s being created right now by DeafBlind people and it’s based solely on touch. We went to Monmouth last month to talk to Jelica Nuccio, one of the creators of this language. The voice you’ve been hearing is Jelica’s interpreter, Halene Anderson. I asked Jelica how she teaches Protactile to a young person who maybe has never learned any other language first.

[Dave restarts the interview]

Let’s go back to how you teach this, because you had said and I understand it to some extent, but to be honest, only to some extent, I understand that there is something intuitive about this language. And I think the tree example made that clear to me because it felt so... I could feel the tree. I’m not sure what else that would’ve been when you took my arm up and you chopped it down and then you could walk on a tree, that made sense to me.

But I’m still wondering when you, I don’t know how old your students might be, but say a 12-year-old kid who comes to you and you’re going to teach them Protactile. I don’t understand where you begin and what the classes are like.

Jelica Nuccio:

A DeafBlind child that has sighted and hearing mothers and fathers, the baby is going to be nestled and patted and rubbed and comforted. And the parent’s thinking, “Well, I’m touching my kid by rubbing their back, by burping them, by being in touch with them. So they’re getting touch in their life.”

But when you’re born, you have to learn how people connect through sound. You don’t automatically know that even though you can hear. Hearing is just auditory input. It’s not necessarily meaningful until you associate meaning with it, until it becomes meaningful to other people and they share those meanings with you. And then they teach you from there, from that modality, how to talk and how to harness the language and how to put it together in pieces. Same thing is true with Protactile language.

So touching, there are nuances to touch that people don’t know how to do. And so they’re like, “Yeah, I touch this child.” But they don’t know I, as a DeafBlind person, I play, I eat, I walk, I do all kinds of things. How do I do them? I’m not doing them in a sighted way. And so sighted parents are essentially connecting with their DeafBlind children as if they were sighted because the parents are sighted and that’s the only way that they know how to do things and how to move the through the world.

Dave Miller:

How big is this language right now? Do you have a sense for the number of people who are using it?

Jelica Nuccio:

Gee, I don’t know. It’s a living language. It’s growing, it’s shifting. There are definitely politics involved when it comes to factions of the DeafBlind community. You may be familiar with the Helen Keller National Center and their model is firmly established. And they use haptics, which is a system that is very, very different than Protactile language. So DeafBlind people face choices, and they need to make a decision about what the best fit for them is going to be.

Dave Miller:

How many people can communicate using Protactile at the same time?

Jelica Nuccio:

I would say up to five at a time.

Dave Miller:

How? Because you and I, I mean, as you’ve been describing, [Jelica interjects]

Jelica Nuccio:

I can demonstrate-

Dave Miller:

[continues] - you’re using all of my arms, your arms and my arms.

Jelica Nuccio:

So right now, you and I are seated side by side. We could have a person sitting here to your left and we could have a person sitting where the interpreter is sitting and then another person sitting to your right, and then we would all be in touch. And it would be iterative in some ways, but yes, we would all be in touch at the same time and communicating in Protactile language.

Dave Miller:

So not the most efficient way to communicate, but an inclusive way to do it.

Jelica Nuccio:

Sure. So I have taught a class with five students, and I asked all of the students to focus on backchanneling. So they were all in touch with me, giving me their emotional feedback directly.

Dave Miller:

I don’t think you actually ever fully explained what backchanneling is.

Jelica Nuccio:

So sometimes I’ll start by explaining backchanneling just among hearing people so they have a frame of reference. So again, using those, “ah”, “mmh”, “uh-huh”, “oh wow”, that’s all backchanneling. It’s just giving emotional feedback or feedback about how you’re receiving a message.

Oftentimes if you’re on a phone, for example, and you’re not face to face, then we really rely strongly on those backchanneling cues, right? So Deaf people also utilize backchanneling cues. And it’s definitely through eye contact, it’s expressions on the face, expressions with the mouth, with the eyebrows, shaking the head, nodding and very, very visual.

But it lets people know how to attune to each other and how to take turns when communicating. So for Protactile language if we’re connected like you and I are, Dave, I can be giving you feedback, “Oh, I’m so, so sorry.” Like this, or, “Ooh, oh no.”

So the emotions are going to be expressed through the quality of your touch. If you’re excited and you’re doing a lot of tapping or you’re doing this, “Ooh, I’m so sorry. That was really tough.” This sort of, kind of a clenching down of the fingers, a claw or pressure, different pressures, different intensities. And I like that to come directly from a person.

So like for you, Dave, I notice that sometimes you’re very, very interested. You’re very interested and you’re wanting to get a word in or ask something. [Dave laughs and agrees] But right now what we kind of have as we’ve established this sort of code where you’re like, so tracing a question mark means I have a question, doing this with the fingers, scratching a little bit is laughing. But what about how you’re laughing? Is it a belly laugh? Is it a giggle?

There are ways that you can modulate that to incorporate those nuances. So then we’re really connected. How are you laughing? Okay, great. You’re laughing. And if we had five people around us, this works. But if you’re crying and you were going to wipe a tear away from my cheek with your hand connected, we’re going to feel each other, like I was describing feeling the emotions that are flowing out of the body from our interlocutor as it’s happening directly.

I don’t want a third person to give me visually what they’re seeing. I can get information directly from you as you’re exuding it through the quality of the tension, how your posture is, how you’re holding yourself, how you’re energized or not.

And so I think it’s really pretty smooth in that all people, two people, three people, four people, five people are feeling things together, but you’re right. It does take more time. If it’s just a one-on-one conversation, a lot less time is required because we get things more instantaneously. And so backchanneling really, really helps.

Without backchanneling, I mean, we’re not having a normal conversation at all. And so being connected in backchanneling and that’s like really, 101, when you’re teaching children Protactile. So I’m teaching you essentially the same way I teach children and other people.

Dave Miller:

Right. I guess without backchanneling, you’re just giving a seminar; you’re just talking to someone, you’re not having a conversation.

Jelica Nuccio:

Right. You’re basically talking to a wall essentially. I mean, I don’t know anything coming back to me. It’s just cold, hard, and I feel like a fool. And it’s humiliating to not be connected and not have a person’s backchanneling.

Dave Miller:

Is it possible for you to put into words what Protactile has meant for your life?

Jelica Nuccio:

If you would’ve met me prior to Protactile, I would have to say you would have a much less enjoyable interaction with me. I think to be honest, I could foresee mental health issues, anger, frustration, a deep desire for information and not getting it.

With Protactile, I really realized how devoid of, frankly the human experience, information can be when people aren’t connected and touched directly. So touch and Protactile language gives that. It’s the foundation for my life. It truly is. I mean, it allows me to function in the world. I can express any kind of thought. I can communicate to you that I have a background in science. People don’t understand, how could you have a background in science? How does that fit? Yes, yes! Science is something in all of our lives on a daily basis.

And this is how I can express those really high level concepts in Protactile language freely, I mean, without limit to anyone through touch. I can go into a restaurant in public and I can have connections directly with the wait staff. They give me a menu. I can say, “No, do you have a braille menu?”, and they hand me a drink by touching me directly.

I am connected with the world and the world is connected with me. When they hand me a drink in my hand, then I know where I’m putting it on the table. And I know it’s been brought to me, it just sitting on the table for me to knock over. Just like these microphones, are we touching them or do we know where they are or do we not? [Jelica and Dave laugh because Jelica keeps bumping the microphones during the interview]

Dave Miller:

When you go to that restaurant, if you haven’t been there before, how do you explain what you’re doing and how do people respond?

Jelica Nuccio:

Here in Monmouth, Oregon, I have a big smile on my face. It’s a very, very small town. And Western Oregon University has several Deaf Studies program, American Sign Language program, Rehabilitation Counseling Program, the DeafBlind Interpreting, DBI Training and Resource Center. So there’s a lot of things that are housed here that increases the awareness among the general public.

So when I go into a restaurant, oftentimes people start signing to me and that’s when I’ll usually find their arm, I trace it down to their hand and put it on mine. And sometimes they’ll pull away and then I’ll just reach and grab for it again and I’ll say DeafBlind, but I can feel that they’re touching me gingerly, they’re reticent to touch. And so I’m obviously careful. Sometimes I’ll tap them first on the shoulder in a way that is inviting because I don’t tap and pull my arm away. I tap and leave my hand there and then trail it down their arm to their hand.

And people generally for the first time, they may be a little unsure and I can feel their tension and they’ll just be signing “YES”, “YES”, “YES” in ASL, and then over time they relax. After I frequent the restaurant, they then are accustomed to who I am that I’m coming, and they’re quite excited actually to greet me. [Dave and Jelica laugh] Excited because they know how to communicate and to be in touch.

So it spreads throughout the community in that way from hand to hand, and that’s the joys I think of being in a small town. And more Deaf students also, and DeafBlind people who are my students come to Monmouth, Oregon. And so then people realize I’m not the only DeafBlind person in the world, there are others. And so police, firefighters, they’re all aware that there is a DeafBlind community here.

Dave Miller:

What you’ve just described in Monmouth, it exists because of a concentration of people who are Deaf or DeafBlind and people who are not, but who have gotten used to communicating with people in different ways because of proximity, because of population. And I guess I’m wondering how we get closer to that outside of Monmouth.

Jelica Nuccio:

So right now in Monmouth, there’s the intersection of Highway 99 and Main, and there are signals and crosswalks at each corner. And at each corner there’s accessible pedestrian signals. But these accessible pedestrian signals, they have a button that you have to press to wait when you’re waiting for the light to change to cross the street. When it vibrates, it lets you know that the light has changed and it’s safe to cross, that the walk sign is on essentially. So they’ve installed those, but they’re designed incorrectly.

Dave Miller:

Hmm.

Jelica Nuccio:

So the way that they’re designed is if you cross from one, let’s say you’re crossing from one side of 99 to the other, you’re crossing uphill, number one, but the crosswalk lines are off kilter, then it will actually send me out into the intersection as opposed to safely from one side to another. [Dave blows out a deep breath feeling the gravity of that statement] Yeah, I feel you Dave. And so right now, they’re working on just this basic safety so DeafBlind people can actually get from Monmouth into Independence and frequent restaurant there and again, grow that community.

So I think that one immediate hope is that people recognize that having friendly and enjoyable environments for DeafBlind people are also friendly and enjoyable for everyone. And hopefully sidewalks are in most places. I hope to see because that sidewalks aren’t everywhere, especially not here. There are sometimes roads that just have dirt roads or just a curb. So sidewalks would be a goal so that we can get out into society and mingle. Busing is a challenge.

So hopefully those kinds of really specific improvements in the future can link communities, Independence, Monmouth, or wherever DeafBlind people want to go. That’s a need. There is a need for communication facilitators. So anytime I make a phone call, I would utilize a communication facilitator and that’s a service that needs to be covered and paid for so DeafBlind people have access to make phone calls. And co-navigating, that’s something that would allow me to go to the grocery store. For example, if I wanted to buy a bunch of groceries, I would be in that store forever trying to figure out which shampoo. Obviously there’s no Braille on of the shampoo bottles and I don’t want to have to open each bottle and take a whiff [Jelica takes a deep breath in through her nose as if sniffing the shampoo. Jelica and Dave laugh]. I could, it would take me a while, Dave, to finally find my shampoo.

Dave Miller:

I do sniff the shampoo and I can see and hear. But, yeah. [Jelica and Dave laugh]

Jelica Nuccio:

And the state is responsible for those services. And I think that they’re going to be in place soon, but again, that has been a project to get those things supported by the community. And so Protactile education for DeafBlind children throughout the state of Oregon. The state of Oregon is actually the first state... It’s groundbreaking, the first state where DeafBlind people have been working with DeafBlind children in the field of education. So it’s, I think being busy and connecting us all in community is my vision for the future.

Dave Miller:

Thank you very, very, very much.

Jelica Nuccio:

Thank you, Dave.

Jelica Nuccio:

And I want to just add, I gave you a hug and do you know why?

Dave Miller:

I don’t know.

Jelica Nuccio

It wasn’t to establish intimacy with you, Dave, [All laugh] it wasn’t for those reasons that we talked about that hearing and sighted people generally touch for these emotional reasons. It’s really for me to be able to touch you more. Sighted people will give your handshake and that will add to all of the visual information they’re getting. For me, when I shake your hand, it’s giving me a little bit more. But when I give you a hug, it’s like a blast of all that you are and are bringing in that moment.

Dave Miller:

Huh.

Jelica Nuccio:

So it’s giving me a lot of information about you. It’s not just giving you some love.

Dave Miller:

Well, I was giving you love even if you weren’t giving it to me. [Dave and Jelica laugh]

Jelica Nuccio:

I’m happy to have some love from you, Dave. [Laughter continues]

Dave Miller:

I’m happy you got information. [Laughter continues] Thank you very much.

Jelica Nuccio:

Absolutely, and thank you.

Dave Miller:

That’s Jelica Nuccio, the founder of Tactile Communications. The voice you heard was the interpreter, Halene Anderson. There’s a video from our visit on our website, opb.org/thinkoutloud. Many, many thanks to CM Hall and to Heather Holmes, co-directors of the DeafBlind Interpreting: National Training and Resource Center at Western Oregon University. CM, we truly could not have done this show without you. Thanks also to Nalin Silva who set up a complicated temporary recording studio at WOU.

If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One app on Apple podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at 8:00 PM and here’s a quick reminder in case you haven’t heard, we actually put transcripts of all of our shows on our website about a week after they air. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller, we’ll be back tomorrow.

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