See What I’m Saying:

The Extraordinary Powers of our Five Senses


Chapter 7: Touching Speech and Feeling a Rainbow


Courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama

Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf,

touched faces to understand speech.


        It might seem awkward having your face touched by someone you’ve just met. But not with Rick Joy. His warmth and good humor quickly dispels any awkwardness. And there is good reason for Joy to touch my face. It’s the only way he can understand my questions. Joy is deaf and blind. And to communicate with people who do not know sign language, he touches their face.

        I ask Joy, who is in his late sixties and has an animated, congenial face, how many deaf-blind individuals in the U.S. use this Tadoma method of lipreading from touch. Joy has his thumb resting vertically on my chin so that its tip is just touching my lower lip. His index finger is curled under the bottom of my chin, and his three other fingers gently touch my neck to the side of my Adam’s apple.

Joy answers my question by naming the individuals he knows of who use the technique. He then concludes “I think there about ten deaf-blind people in the country who still use Tadoma.”

        There used to be many more. The Tadoma method was taught widely to deaf-blind children in the early to mid twentieth century. Helen Keller was its most famous user. Most deaf-blind individuals use tactile signing as their chief means of communication. Tactile signing involves placing one’s hand over the hand of a signer to feel their manual gestures and finger-spelling. But to communicate with individuals who do not know sign language, the deaf-blind have few options. And before the advent of devices which could quickly translate typed text into Braille, Tadoma was the only method.

        But today, there are very few Tadoma users. There are a number of reasons for this. The availability of portable text-to-Braille translation devices makes it easier for non-signers to communicate with the deaf-blind. Also, the causes of deaf-blindness have shifted so that it is more rare, and when it does occur, is often accompanied by cognitive disabilities. This makes the intense concentration needed to learn and maintain Tadoma skills prohibitive for many individuals. Other reasons the Tadoma skill is waning include the growing number of deaf-blind individuals receiving cochlear implants, and the choice of many deaf schools to deemphasize communication techniques other than sign language. Still, the fact that speech can be perceived through touching a person’s articulators fascinates speech scientists.

        I continue my interview with Joy as he cradles my face. I speak slowly and clearly, but resist speaking loudly. “Are some people easier to understand than others?”

    “Yes. Low voices are easier than high voices. It’s easier to feel the voice vibrations with low voices. Men are easier to understand than women and children.” Joy’s own speech can be difficult to understand; a result of not being able to hear his own voice, and it being some time since he’s had articulation training. His mother is present to help with the translation.

    “Can certain face features make it difficult to understand someone? Does my beard make it harder for you?” I ask.

    “Thick beards make it harder. Your beard isn’t bad.”

    “Thanks” I say. “I was thinking of shaving it off to make it easier for you. I’m glad I didn’t.” We both laugh.