Protactile 2.

Sage Van Wing tells the story of a new language for OPB:

It’s not often a new language emerges. But in the last 15 years, a new language was born right here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s called Protactile, and it was created by a group of DeafBlind people who prioritize touch.

One of the people at the center of creating this new language is Jelica Nuccio. She recently moved to Monmouth, Oregon, where Western Oregon University just received a grant for $2.1 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration, or RSA, to help train Protactile language interpreters.

DeafBlind people like Nuccio have traditionally used variations on sign language to communicate, but it can be easy to miss important details in a language that is designed to be seen. “We can’t grow if we always are only getting things secondhand from other people who are seeing them in the world firsthand because people are uncomfortable shifting to a tactile ground,” Nuccio said. “There have been years and years and years of isolation for DeafBlind people.”

Protactile was born when Nuccio first took over the Deaf-Blind Service Center in Seattle. At that point, she began to advocate for DeafBlind people to communicate with each other without the use of interpreters. “I said no, we don’t need interpreters between us in our midst 24/7. We can run this thing ourselves directly in contact with one another,” Nuccio said. “The original intention was not to create a language: it was simply to be in communication with each other directly.

“Once we got in touch we realized that we were happening upon some different communication practices,” Nuccio said. “So we brought in some other DeafBlind people and we started interacting using those communication practices. We got a linguistic anthropologist involved. We basically created a space where everyone is DeafBlind and Protactile and asked: ‘If the world was just full of DeafBlind people — there were no hearing or sighted people on the planet — what would we do? How would we do it?’”

There’s more at the link, where you can also listen to the piece as it was broadcast; unfortunately, it doesn’t give much of a sense of what Protactile is — for that you’ll want to go to their website. Thanks, JC!

Update. It turns out I posted about Protactile a year ago. I have added a “2” to the title of this one and will flog myself vigorously. Unless I forget to.


  1. I’m not sure what really distinguishes this from what Deaf-Blind people used to communicate one-on-one before. I had a friend in high school whose younger sister was Deaf-Blind, and their family engaged in two-way communication with her using “hand over hand” American Sign Language—which appears to be what Protactile is based on. Obviously, it can be easier to manage the conversational back and forth when one of the participants is sighted; if there are real innovations to Protactile, they appear to be a formalization of other touch contacts that replace certain visual and auditory conversation cures. Such cueing and feedback techniques certainly existed before, but they were probably only worked out between individual communicants—as shown in, most famously, The Miracle Worker.

  2. See also last year at Language Hat, with some other links.

  3. See also last year at Language Hat

    Are you kidding me?! Bah. I blame JC, who’s supposed to keep track of these things. Sorry for the repeat!

  4. Nicaraguan Sign Language is another rapidly-evolving, very recent language. (I don’t know if it has a Deaf-blind component or parallel, though.)

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