Provincial Outreach Program for Students with Deafblindness

Communication Strategies

The Intervenor helps to connect the individual with deafblindness with his/her immediate environment in a meaningful way. The Intervenor needs to use the combination of communication modes that best suit the learner's needs and supports him/her to communicate his/her thoughts, feelings, and needs. Not all communication mods will work for all individuals, as each individual will has his/her own way of gathering information and responding to it. The goal is for the learner to gather as much undistorted information as possible.

Communication with a learner who is deafblind can often be very subtle - a tensing of muscles, a slight glance, a wiggle of the toe. The Intervenor has to listen with every part of his/her being - ears, eyes, hands, whole bodies, and especially hearts. The Intervenor needs to be there to respond to all communicative attempts. The Intervenor acts as a communication partner, ensuring communication access and facilitating expressive, as well as receptive communication.

Respecting the Individual's Right to Communicate

A learner with deafblindness, who is also non-verbal, may use alternate communication modes. For example, s/he may use object cues, associated cues, textured cues, tracings, line drawings, and/or picture cues. It is important to respect this and remember that the communication system belongs to the person who is deafblind and not to the Intervenors or people who support them. It is important to ensure that these systems are accessible, organized, and used by the individual. What good are words that are kept on a shelf and only brought out when the intervenor needs to use them? The individual with deafblindness needs to have access to his/her words in order to be an active partner in the communication process.

Each individual communication system should provide: 

  1. A way for the individual to express him/herself effectively
  2. Someone to communicate with
  3. A reason to communicate
  4. Something to communicate about: experiences, interests, people, events
  5. Somewhere for communication to take place: within routines, activities, events, the school, the community

Communication Modes

The Intervenor needs to be a constant presence for the learner with deafblindness, supplying him/her with the information the learner is unable to gather on his/her own. This must be done in a way that is meaningful and easily understood by the individual. It is through knowing the learner, that the Intervenor is able to read every subtle communication attempt and respond accordingly.

Typically, a combination of communication modes are used to ensure that the individual with deafblindness has many opportunities to gather information. With experience, the Intervenor will learn which modes to use to best convey the necessary information to the learner. Below are some examples of communication modes:

  1. An envrionmental cue is a cue that occurs naturally within a routine activity and lets the learner know what is going to happen. (For example, putting on the seatbelt to go for a ride in the car, smelling the chlorine in the pool).
  2. A touch cue is a signal placed on the learner's body to give a specific message. (For examples, a tap on the mouth to mean drink, a tap on the shoulder to mean sit down).
  3. An object cue is a communciation prompt that involves using a real object that either touches the learner's body or is shown to the learner and that has meaning for the learner. (For example, an apron to represent cooking, a shopping bag to indicate shopping).
  4. Gestures are mutually understood natural movements or signals that are used to communicate specific ideas. (For example, pointing to an object when you want the child to notice it, waving goodbye).
  5. Vocalizations are sounds made to get attention, to communicate specific things, and to make wants and needs known. (For example, sounds specific to the child, spoken word).
  6. Pictures are representations of an object, a concept, or an activity. (For example, photographs, Boardmaker pics).
  7. Other techniques include abstract forms of communication. (For example, sign language, Braille/written word).

Object Communication

Object communication is a mode easily understood by most learners, including those who are non-verbal. Objects are used to represent activities/places/people. The individual with deafblindness learns by exploring how his/her body interacts with an object (for example, how it feels, how his/her body moves). It makes sense to start with a concrete, functional object, and build meaning from there. Objects that are used for communciation can be pieces of a real objects, parts of objects that are associated with an acitivty/person/place. The goals for using object cues to communicate include: getting information about an activity/person/place, for making choices, and/or for communicating a message.

Points to consider when using object cues:

  • Learners, caregivers, and families need to work together to choose objects that have meaning to the child.
  • Begin by using objects to give the learner information about activities/people/places. When the learner is ready, s/he will naturally indicate a preference for specific activities/people/places. The learner may indicate preference by eye gaze, hand movement, body movement, or facial expression. For example, if the learner throws one object to the floor and allows one to stay in front of him/her, s/he may be telling you that s/he is choosing the object on the table.
  • Allow sufficient time for the learner to make a connection between the object and the activity/person/place, particularly when the object is new to the child.

For examples of object cues and calendar systems, see Using the Calendar System.


When a learner has both vision and hearing loss, s/he often misses the information that would give him/her a reason to initiate communication. Consequently, it may be necessary to intentionally provide a reason to communicate. Some ways to encourage communication include interrupting a routine/activity or using the START... STOP.... WAIT Technique. Allow lots of time for the child to process the action and to respond. Examples include:

  • Start by performing an activity that the child enjoys, such as bouncing or swinging. Bounce or push the swing for a while, then STOP and WAIT for the child to signal to continue the activity by bouncing her body, kicking her legs, or vocalizing. Then begin the process again.
  • Put the child in the swing but do not push. Wait for the child to ask for a push.
  • Show the child two foods or two toys and wait for the child to choose.
  • Place favourite objects out of reach but within his/her visual field and encourage the child to ask for them.
  • Roll a ball to the child. After you and the child roll the ball back and forth several times, stop and wait.