Protactile Principles

aj granda & Jelica Nuccio


This document outlines core principles of protactile communication. It also provides some background about how these principles were developed and how they are intended to be used as an educational resource. Videos and text descriptions are provided to illustrate proper application of the principles.


Protactile philosophy has grown out of the realization that DeafBlind people’s intuitions about tactile communication are stronger than the intuitions sighted people have. This realization has changed the way we communicate with each other, the way we work with interpreters, and more generally, the way we live. We call this way of life and the principles and practices that shape it, “protactile”. Protactile has been growing slowly in our community and as that has happened, we have developed a framework for sharing that knowledge.

This framework has come out of a decade of experience as teachers. Together, we have led workshops, trainings, and classes in many different venues including conferences, community sponsored events, and university settings. This document is a concise summary of the knowledge we have developed. It is intended to be used by DeafBlind teachers to guide their students’ learning. We also hope that it will be useful to parents of DeafBlind children, interpreters, orientation & mobility instructors, allies, and friends. To learn protactile, you have to actively participate in a protactile community and seek out DeafBlind, protactile teachers; there is no substitute for community immersion and hands-on experience. However, we hope that this document will help you explore and share the protactile world.


Protactile communication has grown most quickly in response to specific, practical problems. In January of 2007, we were both working at the DeafBlind Service Center (DBSC) in Seattle, Washington with another DeafBlind woman, Jackie Engler. We needed to meet regularly as a group but at that time we didn’t have any way of communicating with each other without interpreters. We had to meet in groups of two and then share information afterwards but that was inefficient. We wanted to meet as a group and communicate directly with one another. Another problem we wanted to address had to do with communication in public areas at DBSC. There were hearing people who knew sign language who worked in the same building and they had a habit of coming into DBSC’s space and talking without signing. We felt like we needed to establish ground rules for people coming into our space to make sure it was inclusive for us and also for the DeafBlind clients who came to DBSC. The nearby community college had an interpreter training program and on the walls in their area of the building, they put up signs declaring that space an “ASL Zone”. We wanted something similar to that. We came up with the idea of a “PT Zone” as a way of talking about an environment where communication felt natural and comfortable for us. We thought: When people come into our space, they should use PT in the same way that people coming into Deaf spaces should use ASL.

Around that time, we also started talking to each other about which interpreters we liked and which ones we didn’t like. We realized we had a lot of the same frustrations with interpreters in general. We both had wondered if it was us or the interpreters. In talking to each other, we realized that the interpreters didn’t know how to communicate with people using touch. Meanwhile, we were having three-person meetings more often with Jackie at DBSC. We were all DeafBlind and we were coming up with our own ways of communicating, which were so much better. So we realized that we needed to start teaching each other and sighted people, rather than expecting sighted people to take the lead.

DeafBlind people needed to become teachers and we needed to follow our intuitions about what communication should be like. We had a “community class” where DeafBlind people were supposed to be able to learn new things, share information, socialize, and so-on, but it was run by sighted people in sighted ways; all of the DeafBlind people had interpreters. We wanted to change things so that DeafBlind people decided how information was exchanged. We wanted to do things the DeafBlind way. aj was the Education Coordinator at DBSC, and she started setting up classes and workshops led by DeafBlind people. Ken Sting, a DeafBlind man taught classes to DeafBlind people with either one or two DeafBlind students in the class. aj supported him by encouraging people to use more touch. For example, if two DeafBlind people were sitting next to each other, she would put one person’s hand on the other person’s leg for backchanneling. If they forgot later and their hand slipped off of the other person’s leg, she would put it back. People affectionately started calling her the “PT Police”.

Later other DeafBlind people offered classes. For example, a DeafBlind man named Robert J. Steppler (otherwise known as RJS) taught a knitting class to DeafBlind students. He also taught a cooking class with another DeafBlind teacher, Jeremy Sasser. No interpreters were provided, so they had to figure out how communicate directly with one another. One of the strategies they used was to teach two students at a time. Each teacher worked with one student on a skill and then they switched partners and the other teacher worked with them on another skill. Next, the teachers would talk to each other and the students would discuss what they had learned. So that is an example of how PT developed. It happened organically. We didn’t “invent” PT. What we did was use our positions at the DeafBlind Service Center to set up programs and events that would put DeafBlind people in a teaching role more often. And then when practices started really changing, we created a politics around it. We labeled things, and tried to document what was happening.

For example, in 2007, we taught a class to a group of DB people. When we got there, we naturally went up to each member of the class and talked with them and introduced ourselves. But a lot of DeafBlind people were used to the sighted way so they responded by saying things like: “Why are you coming up to us? We have interpreters here”. That kind of experience—where people were surprised by what we were doing— made us realize that we were really operating according to new rules. We weren’t doing things the sighted way anymore, and we wanted to teach other people how to think like that because we thought it would benefit our community to do things the DeafBlind way.

Out of that history, PT developed organically in the whole community. What was our special role? We pushed for it politically, and we gave labels and names to the practices that were developing. We also set standards and developed principles that could be used to teach people how to communicate the DeafBlind way. We want to emphasize that we did not invent PT like a person would “invent” cued speech or some “interpreting technique”. We pointed out to DB people that their intuitions were more right than they realized, and we encouraged that in them. We tried to give them permission as the Director and the Education Coordinator of DBSC. Then we named things that we and other DeafBlind people were doing and created a political discourse so that people had a way of talking about it and fighting for it. PT is still developing, but over the past 10 years, some principles have proven useful for teaching PT to people. The goal of this document is to provide an outline of the principles we have developed.

For the rest of this ProTactile Principles document, you can view the PDF here: or download and view in Word here: