Working with Deaf and Blind Students | Studio Potter
Through thick-lensed glasses, Joey, age 18, assessed the properties of the plastic texturing tool, holding it some two inches from his acned face. He was my third student that morning to exhibit this behavior. On my first day of teaching in the deafblind program at the Perkins School for the Blind, I was doing my own assessing. This was a new experience for me, and I had to learn on the fly.
Some students preferred to interact with the clay via a tool, while others used direct manipulation with their hands.Since many of my students were completely deaf, the classroom was, for me, unusually quiet. I used the gift of silence to observe. Mille, a tactile-defensive deafblind nine-year-old, pulled away from the feel of clay but was willing to try using a hand-over-hand method to push a texturing tool into a small ball. Some students preferred to interact with the clay via an “extension” of their hand, e.g., a tool, while others gravitated toward the immediacy of touching, pushing, smashing, rolling, and poking.
Katie, age 13 and completely deafblind, grunted with pleasure when the teacher’s aide put a ball of clay in her hands. She held it close to her body, rocking back and forth, intensely squeezing and “reading” with her hands for a solid twenty minutes. She asked for more clay and firmly resisted giving it up when the teacher signaled it was time to go. She stubbornly insisted that she take the clay with her. While she needed constant monitoring, because of her complicated medical conditions, the aide and I agreed to let her take it because the clay was nontoxic, talc free, and posed no other safety risk.
Antonio, a higher-skilled, energetic young man of twenty, came independently to class. I had limited American Sign Language, and he had garbled speech, but we were able to communicate effectively. Antonio was a curious, charming student. He wanted to know about where clay came from and about the firing process. After I demonstrated a few techniques, such as coiling, slab rolling, and pinching, Antonio declared his love for coiling. He came each day ready to coil pots at a steady and rapid rate, creating his own production line. His goal was to give his pieces as gifts to his family, whom he adored and talked about during class. Unlike many students in the program, he chatted breezily as he pinched away.
The idea of introducing visually impaired people to working with clay intrigued me because of the physical and psychological benefits it might offer them. Consider this: the deafblind experience the world around them only as far as the fingertips can reach; their understanding of the world depends on what or whom they touch. They are effectively alone if no one is touching them. Having worked as a high school English teacher, then as a studio potter, I yearned to combine my two career interests, and teaching the deafblind seemed a rewarding way to do so.
My research of this area of teaching uncovered no formal ceramics curriculum for the deafblind population (and that still holds true). Not knowing where to start, I mentioned my quest to everyone I could think of, at cocktail parties, at open studios, and of course, on Facebook. Eventually, I found Dr. Arnold Kerzner, a psychiatrist and pediatrician who consults for the world-renowned Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, one of the few programs worldwide dedicated to working with deafblind students. He introduced me to Perkins School staff, who work with about fifty students.
I proposed a clay course to Perkins, which had few resources to provide, but the course required little from them: simply a space in which to hold the class, a few bags of clay, simple tools, and a water source. I offered to fire work in my studio and to volunteer my time. My proposal dovetailed with Perkins’s overarching curricular goal for deafblind students, which is to offer “a total communication environment, where any and every means of communication that works best for each student is taught and encouraged.” This approach helps Perkins “meet each student at his or her own level of communicative ability.” I hoped to provide a place where students could explore and be curious, develop their gross and fine motor skills, express themselves, observe cause and effect, experience new tactile sensations, and even take pride in the results.
My classroom was regularly used for art and music. There were basic tables, chairs, and a storage cabinet, but no sink. Perkins purchased a few bags of clay and tools I had recommended. We used cafeteria trays and paper plates as work surfaces, and I brought in texturing tools from my home studio. In some class periods, there was only me and an independent, older student, while others were crowded with students, teacher aides, and bulky wheelchairs. I taught a total of seventeen students, ranging in age from seven to twenty-two, enrolled for a five-week summer session, which met every Tuesday.
Some students preferred to interact with the clay via a tool, while others used direct manipulation with their hands.
These students’ needs required the clay body and glazes to be hypoallergenic and nontoxic. Other modifications of the typical ceramics classroom setup included having on hand varying shapes and sizes of tools and materials to accommodate students’ different abilities and preferences. Typically, the deafblind have complicated medical conditions, which may include low muscle tone, no sense of smell, developmental delays, tactical defensiveness, limited mobility, deformation of hands, and sensory integration dysfunction. Sometimes deafblindness is a result of genetic disorders, such as CHARGE and Usher’s syndrome. According to the American Association of the Deafblind, there are more than seventy causes of deafblindness, including premature birth, complications during childbirth, meningitis, and brain injury. There are an estimated 10,000 deafblind children, ages 0 to 22, and 35,000 deafblind adults in United States.
Two of my students, Mohammad, 18, and Osamah, 15, brothers with Usher Syndrome, had recently arrived from Kuwait. Deaf, vision impaired, and nonverbal, they did not read English or know American Sign Language. To say that navigating a new country, with its unfamiliar norms, language, and customs, was a challenge for them would be a huge understatement.
Nonverbal students are especially motivated to use symbols and gestures to communicate while making art, and this was certainly true of Mohammad and Osamah. At first, Osamah did not like touching clay, but learning that he adored the animated Minions characters, I helped him to approach the clay by first using a rolling pin to make clay slabs, then drawing on the slabs with a variety of smaller tools he could hold with his long, beautiful fingers. Focused and engaged, he created his own Minions, and his joy and pride was evident when he kissed his clay characters upon completion. Here, there was no language barrier.
Mohammad was more serious and orderly than his younger brother. A quick study, Mohammed dutifully copied my coil bowl, slab, and pinch pot examples. He was a perfectionist, carefully smoothing the rim, cutting precise lines, doing everything with excellent focus. He enjoyed building on a large scale. He developed advanced skills but seemed a bit bored. During the last class, that changed. Uncharacteristically, he grabbed a ball of clay and furiously began modeling. After a minute or two, the ball had four legs, a neck, a head, and a tail. He pulled the neck back, sliced it with a fettling knife, dipped his finger in the cut, and brought it to his lips. Smooshing the creature back into a ball, he repeated this modeling, “slaughtering” and “tasting” three times. I watched with fascination. He was passionate, focused, and determined, and he was communicating. Knowing him to be an observant, conservative Muslim whose family had recently celebrated End al-Fitr, the feast at the end of Ramadan, I surmised that he was illustrating the ritual slaughter of a lamb. Satisfied, Mohammad wiped his hands with a wet towel and neatly pushed in his chair.
The program director, teachers, and students at Perkins all responded enthusiastically to my clay course, but because of budgetary issues, Perkins could not hire me to continue teaching the course. I was disappointed, even though I knew that this might turn out to be the case when I volunteered to teach the pilot class. In the future, I hope to teach more deafblind students, and with them, create public art projects, such as textured tile installations, kinetic sculpture, and braille signage, and a studio show and sale. More broadly, I am open to a wide array of the possibilities for connecting with deafblind students through this kind of work, and I am hopeful that this article will inspire others to engage with the deafblind community or jump-start collaborations between medical organizations and academics or professional studio potters.
American Association of the Deafblind aadb.org
Helen Keller National Center for Deafblind Youth and Adults hknc.org
National Consortium of Deafblind nationaldb.org
National family Association for Deafblind nfadb.org
Usher Syndrome Coalition usher-syndrome.org
The Charge Syndrome Foundation chargesyndrome.org
Perkins School for the Blind perkins.org