Thinking about tactile sign languages

Post date: 
Wednesday, 15 August 2018
Photo of Steve wearing a white shirt and smiling

Speech and Language Therapist Steve Rose considers different aspects of tactile sign language and young people who can benefit from this approach to communication.

Over the last 10 years or so I’ve spent increasing amounts of time thinking about and supporting young people using different aspects of tactile sign languages as part of a Total Communication approach (using different ways or modes to get a message across – it includes the use of cues, speech, gesture, signs, finger-spelling, pictures and writing).
This is an area that continues to develop as there is an increasing understanding of how we approach it, when to use it and who benefits most from using tactile signing approaches. However, there is still much to understand and develop.
Surprisingly, there isn’t a naturally occurring tactile sign language (see references 1 and 2 at the bottom of this article). And by this, I mean there isn’t a tactile sign language that has emerged purely through a tactile modality to develop a language with full linguistic features and structures. There are however, adaptations to existing sign languages (accessed in a visual mode modified to a tactile mode) and touch systems, which have been developed by people thinking about how to signal messages in a tactile way (see reference 3).
The rest of this article will consider who has experienced success in communicating in this way and some of the key aspects that make up a whole tactile sign language.

Who can benefit

I’ve worked with a range of children and young people who have accessed words and language in a tactile way. Children who have benefited most are ones who have been identified with:
  • Deafblindness/multi-sensory impairment (congenital, acquired and degenerative conditions)
  • Vision or hearing impairment with additional needs
  • Multiple disabilities and vision impairment
  • Profound and multiple disabilities.
Labels can be difficult for so many reasons and each of these labels represent children with a diverse range of needs. However, when thinking about tactile signing the unifying characteristic is that children need access to words and language in a physical and concrete way, and are unable to access this information sufficiently using sight or listening alone. There is a likelihood that there will be other children who meet this need and don’t identify with the groups above.

The diagram illustrates different features of tactile sign language
Features of a full tactile sign language

The accompanying diagram illustrates different features of tactile sign language, some of which may be used as interventions or approaches in their own right. However, a full language would encompass elements of each to establish the completeness and richness of communication.
The diagram illustrates the different features of a full tactile sign language. It groups modes of communication into four groups:
  • Alphabet-based systems, which includes deafblind manual and block
  • Visual adaptations, which include visual frame, close signing and hand tracking
  • Contact points, which include haptics, on-body signs and touch cue systems
  • Tactile sign language, which includes coactive, hands on and hand-under-hand signing.
Each of the groups are in circles and overlap making up the components of full tactile language. 


There are two alphabet systems: the deafblind manual alphabet, based on the British 2 handed alphabet where the speaker touches specific points on the listener’s hand, and block where the speaker traces capital letter shapes on the palm of the listener’s hand.

Visual adaptations

A number of adaptations to visual sign languages can be used, particularly where the young person continues to have useful vision. Visual frame ensures that signs are presented within the known visual field/optimum part of the visual field, whereas close signing ensures that signs are presented within the appropriate depth of field. Hand tracking can be used by the listener to guide the speaker’s hands into the most useful visual field, as well as supplementing gross movements associated with signs (direction, size, speed of movements etc.).

Contact points

Various features include the use of contact points, which make a specific type of touch on a particular part of the body. This includes touch cue systems which are designed to give messages to the listener about what is about to happen next, and on-body signs which have a broader vocabulary. Perhaps the most useful within the full language are haptics. Haptics involve specific touch point contacts (such as tapping on the upper arm to indicate agreement during an interaction) or drawing environmental onto a part of the body, usually the back or arm. This approach can give a broader perspective of what is happening in the environment, giving a speaker the chance to pick up incidental information alongside self-expression.

Tactile sign language

The features already described are aspects that may also occur within a tactile sign language. Here there are a range of terms which can be used to describe the provision of a cultural sign language (e.g. British Sign Language or Sign Supported English) in a tactile way.
Take as an example, a listener placing their hands on top of a speaker’s hands to receive the signs. Within the deaf community this may be referred to “hands on” and within the education field this may be called “tactile sign language” or “hand-under-hand signing”. These approaches are very similar in how they are presented and how interaction is regulated between the speaker and listener, however there may be differences in the language competency of the communication partners.
Coactive signing is an approach to tactile sign language where the speaker helps the listener to physically form hand shapes and make the signs together. This approach is potentially invasive and may confuse listener/speaker roles. I would advocate that this approach is used as a teaching method to help young people refine and develop their skills, and that it is used with caution and very respectfully.
The features of tactile sign language form a group of methods of communication, some are used individually, and successfully as individual tools within a total communication approach. There are many aspects to consider in the tactile sign language family and there continues to be more to learn in when, why and how we use it.

Further information

  • For more information, please contact Steve directly at [email protected].
  • Find out about more about resources to support tactile sign language on NatSIP’s Sensory Learning Hub.


  1. Hart, P. (2010) Moving Beyond the Common Touchpoint – Discovering Language with congenitally deafblind people. (Doctor of Philosophy, University of Dundee). Retrieved from: accessed on 09/04/2018.
  2. Dammeyer, J., Nielsen, A., Strøm, E., Hender, O & Eiriksdóttir, V. K. (2015) A case study of Tactile Language and its Possible Structure: A Tentative Outline to Study Tactile Language Systems among Children with Congenital Deafblindness. Journal of Communication Disorders, Deaf Studies and Hearing Aids. Vol 3:2 (pp.1-7).
  3. Deuce, G. & Rose, S. (in press) ‘Sign Acquisition in children who are deafblind’. In Grove, N. & Launonen, K. (Eds) ‘Manual Sign Acquisition in children with Developmental Disabilities’. Nova Publishers: USA.

Coming soon

A follow up article exploring some of the challenges of teaching and learning tactile sign language – Steve Rose teams up with Consultant Teacher Gail Deuce to explore practical strategies.