Adaptations for Learning to Use Touch Effectively
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Tactile Strategies With Students Who Are Blind and Have Severe Disabilities
June E. Downing Deborah Chen
© 2003 by The Council for Exceptional Children. Reprinted with
is a primary sense for learning. Teachers use pictures, photographs,
and a variety of colorcoded materials in their instruction. They also
use demonstrations and considerable modeling, which requires the students
visual attention. Many students with severe and multiple disabilities
have considerable difficulty understanding verbal information and
so rely heavily on visual information (Alberto & Frederick, 2000;
Hodgdon, 1995; Hughes, Pitkin, & Lorden, 1998). But what about
students who cannot perceive visual cuesor access verbal information?
When students have severe and multiple disabilities, teachers must
resort to alternative teaching strategies to provide effective and
If these students are also blind or have limited vision, however,
they need instructional materials that provide relevant
tactile information. This article describes specific tactile strategies
to support instruction of students who have severe and multiple disabilities
and who do not learn visually.
A teachers instructional style certainly influences what a student
learns. Teachers engage their students by providing visual and auditory
information. They convey their mood through facial expressions, body
language, and tone of
voice. They give directions by gestures, pointing, and spoken words.
If students cannot receive or understand these
modes of communication, the teacher must use alternative strategies.
The primary alternatives are tactile. The teacher must convey his
or her instructional expectations, mood, and information through physical
and direct contact with the student.
through the sense of touch may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable for
most teachers, including those with
training in special education. Teachers should become aware of how
they interact with the student through touch. To be most effective
with tactile teaching, teachers must consider many issues:
What impressions are conveyed to a
student when he or she is touched?
Do the teachers hands convey different information depending
on their temperature, tenseness of tone, speed of movement, and degree
Are teachers aware of the range of emotions that they can communicate
Where do they touch the student (e.g., palms, back of hands,
arms, legs, chest)?
Do they touch the students bare skin or clothing over
How do students respond to different types of tactile input?
To be maximally effective, teachers must become aware of, interpret,
monitor, and modify their tactile interactions from the students
Sighted students learn from demonstrations and through imitation.
Students who are blind or have minimal vision need opportunities to
feel the demonstrators actions by touching the parts of the
body or objects involved in the actions (Smith, 1998). For example,
in a cooking class, a classmate demonstrates how to make meringue
by whipping egg
whites. The student who is blind can feel the peers hand holding
the bowl, the other hand grasping the electric mixer. This way, the
student who is blind can see what his or her classmate
is demonstrating. Like other tactile adaptations, the use of tactile
modeling requires careful planning on the part of the teacher and
extra time for the student to benefit from this instructional strategy.
Sighted students visually examine and make observations about something
they are looking at together. The student
with minimal or no vision should have opportunities for shared exploration
with classmates through tactile mutual
attention (Miles, 1999). For example, during a unit of study on masks,
the student and a classmate may tactilely
examine an African mask, placing their hands together as they explore
the relatively smooth parts of the mask and find the leather strips,
beads, and decorative feathers that border the mask. This way the
student has a joint focus and shares observations with a classmate.
Sighted classmates will have many creative ideas of ways to use tactile
and tactile mutual attention with peers who are blind and have additional
disabilities (see Figure 1).
1. Considerations for Interacting Through Touch
Select the message that you want to communicate to the student (e.g.,
greeting, reassurance, encouragement, praise, redirection, demonstration).
2. Decide how best to communicate that message through the type of
touch (i.e., duration, pressure, movement) and where to touch the
student (e.g., back of hand, shoulder, or knee).
3. Identify how you will let the student know that you are close (e.g.,
by saying his name) before touching him or her (e.g., on the elbow).
4. Discuss whether and how to examine an item with the student (e.g.,
by having two students examine an African mask).
5. Decide whether and how to use tactile modeling (e.g., by asking
a classmate to show the student how to blow up a balloon).
6. Observe the student's reactions to your tactile interactions and
modify the interaction accordingly.
7. Identify how you will end the interaction (e.g., let the student
know that you are leaving by giving him a double pat on the shoulder).
Tactile Learning and Teaching
When students with severe disabilities are unable to use their vision
effectively for obtaining information, they require
tactile information that is accessible to their hands or other parts
of their body (see box, Web Site Resource for information
on tactile learning from Project SALUTE).
Site Resource: Project SALUTE
Project SALUTE (Successful Adaptations for Learning to Use Touch Effectively)
contains information sheets related to
tactile adaptations for students who are blind with severe disabilities.
These strategies include the following:
* Tactile communication strategies
* Mutual tactile attention
* Tactile modeling
* Object cue
* Touch cue
* Tangible symbols
* Textured symbols
Visit Project SALUTE on the Web at
information, however, has different characteristics from visual. Unlike
vision, touch provides a fragment
of the whole; the student must put together a series of tactile impressions
to understand what other students are
looking at. For example, fourth-grade students are studying different
aspects of life in the desert. One student, who is
deaf and blind and does not know American Sign Language, is feeling
a large desert tortoise. One hand is near the tail, and the other
hand is feeling one edge of the shell near the tortoises head.
It will take this student considerable time and effort to tactilely
examine and discover the physical characteristics of a tortoise, while
his classmates can see that it is a tortoise in one glance.
vision, touch provides a fragment of the whole; the student must put
together a series of tactile impressions to understand what other
students are looking at. Certain concepts are easier to convey tactilely
than others. Abstract concepts are much more difficult to adapt tactilely
than more concrete facts. For instance, it is much easier to teach
about helium using balloons than it is to teach historical events.
The teacher must ensure that the tactile representation is truly representative
of the concept and is relevant and meaningful to the student. For
example, to teach that the solid state of water is ice, the use of
raised (tactile) lines in waves to represent water and raised (tactile)
straight lines to represent ice is not meaningful or understandable
to most students with severe and multiple disabilities. In contrast,
the use of water (wet, liquid) and ice (cold, solid) would clearly
represent the critical aspects of the topic of study.
educational team must decide what aspects of a lesson can be represented
tactilely to make instruction most easily understood. At times, the
best tactile representation may be tangential to the specific subject.
For example, for a lesson on Lewis and Clark and their exploration
of the West, artifacts of the Old West (e.g., pieces of clothing,
fur, leather pieces, a whip, and tools) can be used to provide a tactile
experience for the student with no usable vision. Such items would
also benefit the entire class. Acting out the event using objects
as props also adds clarity and interest to a seemingly abstract topic.
Obviously, students with different skills and abilities will develop
different concepts of the topic of study. For example, whereas fifth-grade
students without disabilities in geometry class learn how to find
the area of a square, a student who has severe and multiple impairments,
including blindness, may just be learning to sort square shapes from
round ones. General and special educators need to understand such
differences and still challenge students to learn what they can.
You can provide visual (e.g., pictures or sign language) and auditory
(e.g., speech) information to several students at once. These so called
distance senses are quick and efficient. In contrast, tactile information
requires individual physical contact and takes more time to understand.
You must allow extra time for presentation of tactile information
so the student has an opportunity to touch, handle, examine, and eventually
synthesize and understand information (Downing & Demchak, 2002).
Here are some reminders:
Decide how to introduce an item to the student.
The item should be accessible so the student can detect its
presence and then manipulate it to determine its identity or relationship
to familiar experiences.
Touching the item to some part of the students body (e.g.,
arm or side or back of hand) is less intrusive than manipulating the
students hand to take the item and therefore, such an approach
is recommended (Dote-Kwan & Chen, 1999; Miles, 1999; Smith, 1998).
Some students are timid about tactile exploration because they are
wary and careful about handling unfamiliar or disliked materials.
teacher or peer may introduce a new object to the student, by holding
the object, and placing the back of his or her hand under the students
hand. The student is more likely to accept the touch of a familiar
hand than that of an unfamiliar object. Slowly the teacher or peer
can rotate his or her hand until the student is touching the object.
This way the student has physical support while deciding whether to
touch and examine the object (Dote-Kwan & Chen, 1999). After the
student detects the presence of the item, he or she is more likely
to take the item and explore it (if physically possible).
students will use their hands to explore; however, some students have
such severe physical disabilities that they may use touch receptors
in their tongue, on their cheeks, or inside of their arms. In all
cases, you need to encourage the students active participation
(even if only partial) in accessing information.
Effective Tactile Representation
To determine whether tactile information is truly representative of
a specific concept, the representation must be tactilely
salient and meaningful. Because it is natural for sighted teachers
to have a visual perspective, it is difficult to make tactile adaptations
that make sense tactilely.
example, tactile outlines of items (e.g., string glued to a drawing
of a house) may be used to represent different concepts but may not
be recognized tactilely or understood by the student. Although miniatures
are convenient because of their size and are easy to handle, they
are based on visual characteristics of the objects they represent.
For example, a small plastic dog has no tactile characteristics in
common with a real dog. Similarly, a miniature of a house, while visually
recognizable, does not resemble a house when examined tactilely. A
key that the student has used to open the front door of his house
will form a more accurate concept of house.
with what can be perceived tactilely by blindfolding yourself and
examining the adaptation using
only your sense of touch. In addition, avoid misconceptions as much
as possible. For example, in a kindergarten classroom, a student brought
a glass paperweight with a rose in it for show and tell. He talked
about the rose as he
passed it around the class. When a classmate who has no vision and
limited language was allowed to hold the paperweight, he was confused
when told its a rose. More appropriate language
should be used to describe what this student is experiencing (e.g.,
round, smooth, heavy, and glass).
If this student is to understand the meaning of rose,
then you need to provide a real rose, so the student can perceive
its shape, texture, size, and
scent (see Figure 2 for other considerations).
2: Considerations for Developing Tactile Adaptations
Identify the objective of the lesson or the instructional
2. Select the materials to convey this concept.
3. Close your eyes and examine the material with your
4. Take a tactile perspective, not visual, when deciding to present.
5. If the entire concept (e.g., house) is too complicated through
a tactile adaptation, then select one aspect (e.g., key) for the tactile
6. Consider the student's previous tactile experiences. he or she
7. How does the student examine materials through
8. Decide how the item will be introduced to the student.
9. Identify what supports the student needs to tactilely item.
10. Decide what language input (descriptive words) convey the student's
experience of the material.
Some students demonstrate strong reactions to tactile information,
even though this may be the best way for them to receive information.
These reactions are often referred to as tactile defensiveness and
treated as a negative characteristic of the student. Some people have
a low sensory threshold and are hyperreactive or hyperresponsive to
certain sensory stimulation (Williamson & Anzalone, 2001). Tactile
responsivity is simply the degree to which an individual responds
to tactile stimulation. Some individuals can tolerate considerable
and varied amounts of tactile input without much reaction (e.g., tactile
hyporesponsivity), while others are very sensitive to certain types
of tactile input (tactile hyperresponsivity). These responses vary
from person to person. Some people can wear certain fabrics next to
their skin while others cannot.
must be aware of and respect these individual differences. Teachers
should not take students hands and physically make them touch
materials if they are not willing to do so (Smith, 1998). If students
are forced to have aversive tactile experiences, they are less likely
to explore tactilely. The term tactile defensiveness has a negative
connotation that may interfere with effective intervention. If the
student has a sensory modulation problem that results in hyperresponsiveness,
then the educational team should include an occupational therapist.
Creative ways to bypass this problem and assist the student to handle
tactile information are needed.
Making appropriate tactile accommodations (instructional strategies
or materials) cannot be left to one member of the team (i.e., the
teacher certified in the area of visual impairment). A team effort
is required, with different team members contributing their skills,
knowledge, experiences, and ideas (Downing, 2002; Silberman, Sacks,
& Wolfe, 1998). A special educator specifically trained in the
area of visual impairments and blindness can be helpful with teaching
ideas and tactile resources. Depending on this teachers professional
training and experiences, however, he or she may be unfamiliar with
the types of accommodations a particular student may need. The student
who is blind, has spoken language, and reads braille has very different
learning needs from those of a student who does not speak, does not
read braille, and has limited receptive language. Relying on one specialist
to meet the tactile needs of a student who is blind with additional
severe disabilities should be avoided. The ideas of all members of
the team are needed, including family members and classmates who do
not have disabilities (Downing, 2002). This way tactile adaptations
and strategies are more likely to be used at home and school and with
members should consider how the student perceives information through
touch, the students best physical position, the students
ability to move different parts of his body, and past experiences
with tactile information. Family members can provide insight on the
students tactile experi-ences and preferences. Occupational
therapists can provide valuable information on the students
use of his hands, responsivity to tactile items, and strategies to
therapists can help with positioning considerations and adaptive equipment
that support tactile exploration. In collaboration with the general
educator, the teacher certified in visual impairments can provide
ideas for making
tactile adaptations to instructional materials. Classmates can be
asked for their ideas on how to use tactile modeling or to gather
objects and tactile materials that can make a lesson more meaningful.
Meeting the learning needs of students who have severe disabilities
and who do not have clear access to visual information is a significant
instructional challenge. Teaching through touch is unfamiliar and
perhaps awkward for
most sighted people, but learning though touch is essential for students
who are blind or have minimal vision.
use of tactile strategies must consider the individual students
needs and abilities, learning environment, and
task. These strategies can best support students learning when
there is a concerted effort on the part of the educational
team, additional time for the presentation of tactile information,
and systematic evaluation of adaptations.
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E. Downing (CEC Chapter #29), Professor; and Deborah Chen (CEC Chapter
#918) Professor, Department of Special Education, California State
correspondence to June E. Downing, Department of Special Education,
California State University, Northridge, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge,
CA 91330-8265 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
development of this article was supported by the U.S. Department of
Education, Office of Special Education and RehabilitativeServices
Grant # H3224T990025. The content, however, does not necessarily reflect
the views of the U.S. Department of Education, and no official endorsement
should be inferred.
Exceptional Children, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 5660.