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      Tips for communicating with deafblind people

      Did you know there are around 356,000 deafblind people in the UK? It's a condition that has a significant impact on a person’s life – even if, individually, their deafness or their bindness is mild.

      What is deafblindness?

      Deafblindness is a combination of sight loss and hearing loss that causes difficulties with communication. It's sometimes known as dual sensory impairment, dual sensory loss or multi-sensory impairment.

      Some people who are deafblind are totally deaf and totally blind, while many others have some hearing and vision.

      There are two main types of deafblindness:

      • congenital deafblindness is when a person is born deafblind
      • acquired deafblindness is when a person becomes deafblind later in life.

      How can someone who is born deafblind communicate?

      A person who is born deafblind may have trouble understanding the concept of language because they have not experienced it naturally. Deafblind children may be taught to use symbols, objects of reference, sign language, braille and other communication systems.

      How can someone with acquired deafblindness communicate?

      There are many causes of acquired deafblindness. Usher syndrome is a common cause. With the right training and support, people with Usher syndrome can learn to create the best environmental conditions so that they can use what vision or hearing they have. As their vision gets worse, many people with Usher syndrome will learn to use some form of tactile (touching) communication.

      Communicating with older deafblind people

      The largest group of deafblind people developed hearing and vision problems as they got older. Of all the people in the UK aged over 75 who have a sight loss, around half will also have a hearing loss.

      The following groups of older deafblind people will all need different types of help:

      • People who have developed a dual sensory loss as they've got older - the largest group
      • People who've adapted to blindness or partial sight during their lives, and are now losing their hearing     
      • Older deaf or hard of hearing people, whose usual means of communication is speech or sign language and who are now losing their sight
      • Older people who have had a dual sensory loss for all or most of their lives.

      Methods of communication

      Depending on their residual sight and hearing, people who are deafblind may use some form of tactile or other communication, including:

      • Deafblind manual alphabet: also called fingerspelling, this involves spelling out words on someone’s hand in BSL.
      • Block alphabet: This is when a hearing person uses the tip of their forefinger to spell out each word in English in block capitals on the receiver's palm. This method is most often used when communicating with members of the public and others who are unlikely to be familiar with the deafblind manual alphabet.
      • Hands-on signing: Some people who were born deaf and then experience sight loss as an adult continue to use sign language even when they can no longer follow visual signs. This is possible through the listener touching the hands of the person who is signing and following their movements.
      • Visual frame signing: When a deafblind person has a limited field of vision, sign language can still be used if the signs are adapted according to their visual needs.

      Some local authorities provide guidehelps or communicator guides who act as 'communicators' for deafblind people, helping them to take an active part in everyday life. This may mean helping them to go out shopping, sorting out their bills, or interpreting at the doctors - depending on their needs.

      For more information about communicator guides, see our factsheet Communication support for people who are deafblind. Or, you can contact Sense, which provides support, advice and information about deafblindness including information that can help.

      You can also download and read our factsheet Deafblindness