Number 56 • January 2016

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Social-Haptic Communication Network

Riitta Lahtinen and Russ Palmer report:

This year we have supported professionals to understand social-haptic communication in Brazil and Holland. In Brazil professionals and deafblind people were very keen to develop how social-haptic communication can be applied to everyday life situations. We were invited to share our expertise and research work on haptices and haptemes with them in several ways.

Earlier in 2015, we gave a presentation at a virtual conference (III Forum Virtual Ibero Latino AmericanoSobre Surdocegueira e Deficiencia Multipla Sensorial). We travelled to Brazil in July and presented a key note speech and workshops at the Federal University of Santa Maria1 and in Sao Paulo at the University Estácio de Sá2. This was followed up by giving a lecture via skype at the VIII National Meeting of Families and Professionals Specialized on Deafblindness in Sao Paulo Brazil, November 2015.

There was a lot of enthusiastic feedback from the participants. Professionals and families raised some interesting issues. Vula Maria Ikonomidis one of the organisers from AHIMSA/Grupo Brasil3 collated the feedback. Julieta de Fátima, an experienced teacher from the deafblind school (AHIMSA), realized how much touch she uses to confirm information given to her students. She remembered a student she sees in a home visit program due to his severe health condition. He is in bed all the time and his limbs are suffering atrophy from immobility but she noticed he can control and blink one eye and use one finger. He pays attention to whatever she presents visually and she is starting to use more touch to make sure he understands and the communication is not limited to his sight. She believes that by learning social haptics he can have more contact with his family.

Susana Aráoz, a parent, made comments about how she communicates, through combined touch cues, with her completely deafblind daughter. When they are moving around she has some special touch cues on her arm to indicate whether there are stairs, or a place to sit for instance. In a conversation with Claudia Sofia and Carlos Jorge representing the Brazilian Deafblind Association Abrasc3 they also expressed how useful and adaptable haptices are with deafblind people, their guide interpreters, professionals and family members.

Just before leaving Brazil, Russ was admitted into a hospital for two weeks with a serious skin infection. He has made a short video in sharing his experiences from a deafblind view on how to adapt haptices with the nurses and other practical ideas. You can see this video on YouTube by typing “Russ Palmer hospital Brazil”4.
For further information about the Social-Haptic Communication Network, contact: or; and

Using haptices in health care settings

Riitta Lahtinen, Ph.D, Russ Palmer, Music Therapist and Sanna Tuomaala, Youth Instructor

Haptices are touch messages which are produced onto various parts of person’s body which resemble words or signs. Haptices have their own grammar, and they form their own linguistic system, the social-haptic language. Haptices are formed in different ways; some are a natural description of an activity, while others are based on writing, signing or visual symbols.

When signs are changed into haptices, their grammatical structures change. The skin, the sense of touch and the kinaesthetic sense1 (or movemment sense) form a distinct channel for receiving messages as compared to the eye or the ear. Haptices are comprised of haptemes (compare phonemes, and the grammar of signing). Haptemes are for example pressure, duration, direction and speed (Lahtinen 2008).

The social-haptic language is composed of haptemes. During social-haptic communication two or more people produce/receive touch messages whereas in haptic communication information is received from a technical device by using touch (e.g. haptic feedback). The intentional development of haptices began in the 1990s. The first lecture on the topic was presented in 1993 at the 7th Usher Study Group2 meeting in Potsdam, Germany (Lahtinen & Palmer 1993). Haptices can be grouped into several sub groups. One type are those used in a particular situation or by a specific group of professionals. This article illustrates haptices used in hospitals by health care professionals. As developers of haptices Sanna and Russ tell of their own experiences.

Sanna Tuomaala reports about her experience with haptices in a recovery ward

I have Usher syndrome3. With the progression of this condition, my hearing and vision will both deteriorate. Presently, I use two cochlear implants (CI)4 with which I can hear fairly well in quiet surroundings. My vision is very narrow, only about 10 degrees. I become deprived of sight temporarily due to bright lighting conditions. Mobility in unfamiliar places is difficult without a guide. I communicate in speech, sign language and also in tactile signing, if necessary. In addition to these, I use social-haptic communication.

The hospital is one place where haptices are useful. Imagine a patient, who hears and sees barely anything as the result of medication, a hearing and vision disability, or some other reason. In such a situation, touch is an excellent channel for receiving information; for example, what is happening in the room or what will be done next.

I participated (with others) in developing haptices and testing haptices in a hospital situation. The nurses informed me of the most important incidents and actions to be taken by using these touch messages onto different parts of my body. The following haptices were tested in authentic hospital setting when I had my first CI-surgery: doctor, don’t worry, vaccination, blood pressure, it will hurt now, the time and “Is everything fine?” In that situation, the touch from another person gave also a sense of security and felt reassuring.

Russ Palmer reports about his experiences with haptices in several medical situations

I also have Usher syndrome. I use two cochlear implants, with which I get along in peaceful surroundings. I am also blind and when out of my home, I always need a guide. I communicate using speech, English finger spelling and social-haptic communication.

I have been developing haptices, teaching their use and analysing their grammar (i.e. haptemes) since the beginning of the 1990s. I use haptices all the time in various kinds of situations both with family members as well as with interpreters and personal assistants. For me, social-haptic communication is a natural, linguistic means of communication.

When I face a new situation, for example my cataract surgery, I tried to consider in advance what is a safe way of getting situational information. I knew that during the cataract surgery I could not use my cochlear implants. In that situation I am deafblind. Riitta and I used haptices that we had agreed beforehand (see photos) which worked well.

I have used those haptices also in other hospital and health care situations. Recently, for example, haptices were very useful while in the hospital in Brazil (Palmer, 2015) where only Portuguese was spoken by the hospital personnel. It was quicker for the nurses to learn to use haptices than to learn to pronounce English words. Haptices can be used together with cochlear implants or without them.

Pictures of the most common hospital haptices are shown. Deafblind persons may use this list of haptices and take them along in health care situations and introduce them to the health care personnel. Haptices are easy to learn because they are based on the activity and provide logical messages regarding the medical procedures to be done.

For further information about haptices, contact: and

Haptices in a hospital

Practical haptices for a person who is deafblind or hard of hearing. Haptices will help with communication in a hospital and for deafblind individuals also with orientation in a situation when other devices are not in use.

Lahtinen, R. 2008. Haptices and haptemes. A case study of developmental process in social-haptic communication of acquired deafblind people. Doctoral Dissertation. Tampere: Cityoffset Oy.

Lahtinen, R. & Palmer, R. 1993. Communication with Usher People, Practical Ideas for the Family & Professional. Proceedings, Seventh European Usher Syndrome Study Group.
Russ Palmer hospital Brazil link (2015):
2 Usher study group is now called the DbI Usher Network (

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