Deafblind Awareness Week: Objects of Reference

“The role of the tangible object is central for the deafblind child’s communication and language learning, supporting a multi-modal approach using speech and co-active sign. If the bib is always put on for feeding, it becomes a key part of the child’s mental representation of feeding and the feeding process. After experiencing the routine over and over, just the touch of the bib will trigger the excitement, or relief, that the feed is coming. Despite the absence of signed or spoken language the object itself becomes a powerful communication tool.” Patricia Gibbons wrote in her article Using objects to promote early communication and language for deafblind children, in the Batod Magazine.

Through the repeated experiences of routines the referential function of the object becomes established along with the tactual information.  The learner is successful in understanding what it represents where do we go now? Can it become abstract? Can we have conversations about what is happening or what has happened?

The object can now be used to refer to the activity we are referring to by taking part of it, so not the whole but part of a whole.  If the learner wants to play with the foam and it is not there, he can be shown just the cap of the foam to represent it to tell him that its messy play.  As the learner reaches the level of understanding, Object Cues can become more abstract and have less immediate connection with the physical connection with what they represent and these are referred to as Objects of References.

The learner can now understand the “referential function” of objects because each is different by its texture, shape and the sign.  Gradually the objects maybe possible to use with less characteristic to touch, their salient features are less clearly defined and the sign may be more important meaning to the learner.

An OR now provides a way for the learner to ask for something that is not present  and adults need to model the use of ORs as they would model other forms of symbolic communication, such as to recall events, name activities , places and people, show different parts of an activity and even ask questions.  Children with verbal language can talk or ask about specific activities whether they are planned or not.  Using ORs can be done in the same way.


OR for bike                                         


OR for guitar (strings)                                     


OR for car/bus


Andrew who is deafblind and relies on tactual information to understand his world. Andrew struggled to make sense of his world and his communication was interpreted by his communication partners.  Through routines his tactual sense was developed by exploring objects in those routines and tactual signs.  He quickly moved from using Object Cues to a move symbolic level using ORs giving him opportunities to communicate with others and having control of his world.  He would take the OR for music, a tip of a drum stick and hold it in his hand on several occasions during the day.  Music was Andrew’s favourite activity and this was an activity which was done before lunch and twice in a week.  He understood what it represented and used it to request for it even when it was not planned for.  This began the beginnings of spontaneous symbolic communication and also this developed to having a conversation about music after the event through using the OR.  Andrew not only got the tactual information but this was paired with hand under hand sign for music repeatedly.  Today Andrew can now request for music through signing MUSIC to his communication partner out of context of a routine! His communication partner can also negotiate with him that he is doing a less motivating activity first and then he can do his most motivating activity-MUSIC.  This avoids behaviour.  People can talk about music with him moving from the HERE and NOW to talking about past and future events. 

This supports deafblind learners to develop mental representations and developing their communication through access to information through touch in an organised way, creating a powerful tool for them.

How did we design the ORs for Andrew:

  • It had meaning. It was initially linked with the activity before it became abstract
  • Tactual features.  Can he have easy access to the OR? Can it be tactually discriminated from other ORs that he has?
  • Portability- can they be easily carried around?
  • Durability- will it withstand repeated handling by learner?
  • Availability- if it is lost can we replace it?

Andrew has a big repertoire of ORs which represent activities, people and events which can be put in categories.