Just Point Me in the Right Direction

What I’d like to explore in this post is the idea that it is more beneficial for emergent communicators to meaningfully engage in an activity rather than understand the formal language used in the activity. We know that individuals who are congenitally deafblind learn best through experience and so I believe that intervenors should focus more on assisting the consumer to first complete an action successfully. After that goal has been accomplished, the next step could be the acquisition of new vocabulary. I think of it as starting with a solid foundation before adding any fine details. This is even more important if the vocabulary that the intervenor wants to teach leans towards the abstract.

Let me give a specific example of when I believe it is appropriate to choose informal language over formal. John, an emergent communicator is in the kitchen, preparing dinner. The intervenor uses sign language as well as spoken words to request that John retrieve a pan from his cupboard.  However, John does not make his way over and open the cupboard, nor does he make any small movement to suggest that he is thinking about doing so (for example, turning his head to look in the direction of the cupboard). The intervenor waits a short time to allow for some processing time and then repeats the request. There is no response from John once again. Now the intervenor must make a choice on how to proceed. One option is to keep repeating the request until John becomes irritated (most likely because he does not know why the activity has come to a halt) or another option is for the intervenor to walk over and retrieve the pan themselves. Of course, neither of these two options are desirable because John will not learn anything in either situation. Coming up with a third option is where the intervenor can use critical thinking and creativity to come up with an idea that is tailored to John’s specific needs.  

Things to consider:

John’s expressive vocabulary. Have you ever seen him sign ‘pan’ or ‘cupboard’?

John may not know that the spoken words or signs used have any relation to the actual, physical items (e.g. pan, cupboard). If the intervenor does believe that he understands the relation, how would you going about proving it?

Words/signs that represent a physical item that John can touch with his hands, but are extremely large in size. Which part of this physical thing does he come in contact with? Is it always the same part or does it vary?

Whether or not the vocabulary used represents some sort of tangible quality (Some examples include: wet, dry, dirty, clean, heavy)

Is the sign appropriate for the consumer’s conceptual understanding? Examine if these words/signs fall into the categories of concrete, semi-concrete or abstract.

What I’d like to propose that in the situation of John being asked to take a pan from the cupboard, the intervenor put aside all of their sign language knowledge and merely use their index finger to point towards the cupboard door. Also, point to the pan that will be used. This clear direction will be far less demanding on John’s cognitive skills and will be infinitely less confusing.

One last thing I wanted to include is how this pointing may be perceived as less respectful that the use of formal language. I think that it should not be overused and in some situations, I hope that pointing to an object is only a temporary solution. However, this is said with the perspective of typical society in mind. If you think about it from the perspective of the individual who is deafblind, the intervenor using their finger to point at something may not feel anymore directive that the consumer being handed a tangible symbol or the intervenor signing a word to the consumer. The action is still being initiated by the intervenor, and so, all of these ways that the intervenor drives the action should be re-thought. If we spend some time working on strategies that involve the intervenor initiating less, we can find ways for the consumer to increase their independence and have more opportunities to initiate themselves.

(Please note that I’ve chosen to isolate one specific example of gesturing, but of course there are many different ways that gestures can be utilized. This is something that I hope to discuss in future posts, as well as the topic of adapted signs which I have many opinions on, some of which are on opposing sides of the same argument. Thanks for reading!)  


Chelsea MacKinnon
Chelsea currently works as an Intervenor for the Canadian DeafBlind Association Ontario Chapter. She is a 2015 graduate of the George Brown College Intervenor for DeafBlind Persons Program and a member of the IOO and CDBA National Family/Guardian Education Committee and the IOO’s Professional Development Committee.