Protactile Research Network
Analyzing the structure of protactile language as it emerges
For the past decade a new tactile language has been emerging in DeafBlind communities in the United States. The goal of this project is to analyze that process, focusing on phonological structure. This research is supported by the National Science Foundation (BCS-1651100).
Protactile Language Acquisition:
Navigating Social Distancing with DeafBlind Children
The purpose of this project is to investigate how DeafBlind children learn a new language that is completely accessible through touch, called, "protactile language". While access to language can be limited for DeafBlind children under normal circumstances, COVID-19 has added additional barriers. To address this problem, we are bringing DeafBlind protactile experts together with researchers in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, psychology, engineering, and computer science to create a hybrid learning environment for a cohort of DeafBlind children ages 0-5. As we watch these DeafBlind children acquire protactile language, we aim to broaden scientific understandings of language as well as the social, physical, and environmental conditions that make the emergence of language possible. This research is supported by the National Science Foundation (BCS-2038042).
Rethinking Remote Communication:
Leveraging Protactile Intuitions for Better Design
While tactile perception and the haptic channel have been extensively researched and new "touch technologies" are being created, one cannot help but wonder why the tactile channel is still largely used as a cueing mechanism. Think about the most common tactile experiences with technology: A phone buzzes with an incoming message (yet we know little about the content), a driver’s seat vibrates as a vehicle approaches (yet we rely on vision to know where or how close the vehicle is). These uses of the tactile channel are exceedingly limited, and subordinated to vision and hearing thereby taking on a tertiary role in communication. In a circular fashion, the tertiary status of touch has limited our abilities to perceive new, and more powerful affordances in the tactile channel. This research aims to re-think the role of touch in remote communication by mimicking the structures found in protactile language, identifying tactile signals and profiles that are rooted in the superior tactile intuitions of protactile people. This research is supported by the National Science Foundation (CHS-1909121).
Touching the Future: Essays
by John Lee Clark
Touching the Future is National Magazine Award-winning writer John Lee Clark’s second collection of essays in progress. Inspired by the Protactile movement, Clark explores the world the DeafBlind community is building, which features the emergence of a language in an entirely new modality, practices that center and celebrate touch, and innovations in design, art, pedagogy, theatre, and how we stay connected. After centuries of being isolated and silenced by what Clark has named “distantism”—society’s privileging of the distance senses and norms that keep people physically apart—DeafBlind people are turning many assumptions and beliefs upside down. Those essays help to start conversations about what it means to be human and where we are going.
Going Tactile: Life at the Limits of Language
by Terra Edwards
Going Tactile is an ethnographic exploration of life in DeafBlind communities in the United States, where one of the main dilemmas people are facing is: How do you find a way of being in the world when you are losing your primary, visual sense? Rather than shutting down, how do you dilate the tactile, olfactory, and thermal sensory channels that lead out into your environment? In response to questions like these, protactile leaders advance the radical claim that hearing and vision are not necessary for things like greeting another person, joining or leaving a conversation, observing others, or being with them in silence. They argue that all human activity can be realized via touch. As this movement has taken root in practices and institutions, DeafBlind people who were once isolated found themselves caught up in novel patterns of interaction, discourse, and practice. As they find new ways to talk within and about this world, the internal structure of their language is recalibrated to it. This process is leading to the emergence of a new, tactile language. Drawing on long-term anthropological fieldwork (30 months in total), as well as analyses of interactional and linguistic data, anthropologist Terra Edwards tells the story of what she learned about language and life as the people she knew, their modes of knowledge, and their forms of communication were, as they said, "going tactile".