University of Edinburgh

Play and Communication for Children with Visual Impairment and Additional Support Needs

Presented on Monday & Tuesday 1 & 2 December 2008

The importance of touch in non-verbal communication with young people with visual impairment and additional support needs

Mary Lee
Royal Blind School, Edinburgh

Visual imparment can change the conditions and dynamics of social interaction between children, their peers and their care givers. It is the effectiveness of adults in making these connections that is the key to overcoming some of the limits imposed by visual impairment.
Partners in Learning
Enabling educational and social inclusion for children and young people with visual impairment, RNIB

Non-verbal elements of social interaction



  • Posture
  • Gesture
  • Proximity
  • Facial expression
  • Eye movements


  • Vocal sounds

Tactile/bodily contacts

Social interaction
Michael Argyle

  • Bodily contact most basic form of social behaviour
  • Later replaced by visual and auditory cues
  • There is a language of bodily contact
  • Touch influenced by culture

Frequency of contact between couples in cafes - per hour
Jourard (1966)

  • San Juan, Puerto Rico 180
  • Paris 110
  • Gainesville, USA 2
  • London 0

The face is the area most closely observed during interaction

Birdwhistle (1968) analysed physical movements of the face, he found:

  • 4 eyebrow positions
  • 4 eyelid positions
  • 7 mouth positions etc
  • 33 in all

The Canaan Barrie 'on body' signs
A sign vocabulary adapted for children with visual impairment and additional support needs (MDVI)

Characteristics of the adapted sign vocabulary

  • Most signs have a reference point on the body
  • The signs give auditory feedback, or involve movements close to child
  • The signs are simplified and do not involve complex manipulative skill
  • The adapted sign vocabulary reflects the everyday routines, needs and interests of the child with visual impairment.

Reasons for the use of adapted signs

  • To encourage the understanding of language
  • It brings the adult close to the child
  • The adult's language is slower, simpler and clearer
  • To compensate for the visual aspects of non-verbal communication
  • To focus the children on listening
  • To provide tactile cues to the meaning of words
  • To give an accessible means of expressive communication
  • To encourage the development of spoken language

Using the signs

  • Use all the signs in the core vocabulary to create a signing environment
  • Sign keywords only in a sentence and always accompany them with speech
  • Continue to accept and respond to the child's personal gestures

Methods of signing

  • In front
  • On body
  • Hands over

Research has shown that it is the mismatch between the communication modalities of two partners has a more profound effect on development than does the sensory impairment itself.
Paul Hart (2006)

How we put our message across

We replace the visual element with careful use of:

  • Tone of voice
  • Touch
  • Emotion
  • Emphasis/timing

'On body' signing is about relationship

We need permission to touch

We will know from the child's reaction

  • If we have been understood
  • If we are going too fast/too slow
  • Whether touch is accepted at that time