Deafblindness and other senses

Our experience of the world, our 'reality', comes through our senses. People with hearing and / or visual impairments can have, in a sense, a different 'reality'. Their knowledge and experience of the world can differ from those of sighted hearing people.

A boy reads with the text very close to his faceDistance and close senses

Sight and hearing are often called the distance senses because they give us information about what is happening around us. Touch, taste and the balance senses are close senses, giving information only about what is happening now, within arm's reach.

Smell gives some distance information, but is much less useful to us than sight and hearing which provide most of the information we use to learn and function.

Very young babies mainly use touch, taste and smell, but even from birth receive some information from sight and hearing. Over time, they develop visual and auditory skills which enable them to get better quality information and interpret it more usefully.

Compensatory information

A young child holds his mother's handWhen one distance sense is impaired, information from the other can be used to compensate to some degree, keeping the person in contact with the world around them. A deaf person lip reading would be an example of this. Deafblind children, however, cannot use either sense to compensate.

The impact of deafblindness is multi-sensory impairment.

Children who are multi-sensory-impaired need to get as much information as possible from their residual sight and hearing and other senses. Touch can provide a means of learning about the world and for communicating.

Some deafblind children become highly skilled in using smell, for example, to identify people, while other children recognise movement around them by air pressure variations on their skin.

Many children who are multi-sensory-impaired have impairments of other senses, as well as sight and hearing. They may have poor balance, limited movement, under- or over-sensitive touch or impairment to their sense of smell.

Deafblind children may:

  • Be unable to use more than one sense at a time
  • Show significant delays in responding to things they have seen, heard, touched or smelled
  • Be 'tactile defensive' - unwilling to touch or be touched. This may be due to tactile over-sensitivity, but is often a response to past handling
  • Be slow in developing skills using vision, hearing or other senses
  • Have fluctuating levels of sight and / or hearing - so they may see an object one day, but not the next. This is highly confusing and frustrating, and can lead others to assume they can see or hear more than they can

Children who are multi-sensory-impaired rarely learn to make the most of their senses on their own. They need skilled assessment, appropriate environments and help to develop their use of sight, hearing, touch and other senses.

Some deafblind children will be completely isolated when left alone because they cannot hear or see what is happening around them. They may not realise that an adult who has moved away from them still exists.  

Further information

These publications give information on sensory function and development in children who are multi-sensory-impaired:

Vision for Doing by Stuart Aitken and Marianna Buultjens. This is available online at the Scottish Sensory Centre's website.

Deaf-Blind Infants and Children by J.M. McInnes and J.A. Treffry. Published by University of Toronto Press Inc. in 1993; ISBN: 0802077870
Liz Hodges' chapter, 'Effective teaching and learning', in Teaching Children who are Deafblind edited by S. Aitken, M. Buultjens, C. Clark, J.T. Eyre and L. Pease. Published by David Fulton Publishers in 2000; ISBN: 1853466743

Making Sense Together by Rosalind Wyman. Published by Souvenir Press Ltd in 2000; ISBN: 0285635107

Using a Multisensory Environment: A Practical Guide for Teachers by Paul Pagliano

Learning Through Interaction edited by Nick Bozic and Heather Murdoch

Learning Through Touch by Mike McLinden and Stephen McCall

Related links

First published: Tuesday 22 May 2012
Updated: Tuesday 15 October 2013