I just met Rick Joy and he’s already touching my face. His right hand’s thumb is resting vertically on my chin, with its tip brushing against my bottom lip. His index finger is curled under my chin and his remaining three fingers touch my neck and Adam’s apple. This might seem like a particularly awkward interaction for people who’ve just met. But any awkwardness is quickly dispelled by Rick’s warmth and humor. Also, touching my face is the only way he can understand my questions.
Rick is deaf and blind. He’s been using this Tadoma technique of lipreading from touch for over 50 years, and it’s how he’s able to understand most people. In fact, his ability to understand me is astounding. While I certainly need to repeat myself now and then, it’s no more often than I would for someone with a moderate hearing loss.
Rick Joy lost his sight and hearing to meningitis when he was two years old. At seven, he attended the California School for the Blind where he was taught the Tadoma method of perceiving speech from touching faces. The technique, along with his perseverance, allowed him to thrive as a teenager and adult. He was the first deaf-blind Eagle Scout in the US. After getting his associates degree, he learned electronics and was hired by Hewlett-Packard, where he worked for 30 years. Now retired and in his 60’s, he lives with his wife and young child in Northern California. His hobbies include amateur radio operation (using felt Morse code), and home renovation. Regarding the latter, Rick jokes “I think I make my neighbors nervous when I work on the roof.”
I ask Rick if he knows how many deaf-blind individuals still use the Tadoma technique to lipread. I speak slowly and carefully, but resist speaking loudly. He responds, “I know of 10 people who still use Tadoma. But there used to be a lot more.” In fact, Tadoma was taught widely to deaf-blind children between the 1930’s and 1960’s. Helen Keller was its most well-known user, and she famously touched the faces of presidents, first ladies, and other dignitaries. Today, Tadoma is rarely taught: a result of new technologies allowing the deaf-blind to communicate more easily (portable text-to-Braille translators). There are also fewer deaf-blind children, a function of medical advances including cochlear implants.
But the Tadoma technique continues to intrigue speech scientists. Among other things, it demonstrates the supreme multisensory nature of speech perception. As I’ll discuss in a later post, there’s good evidence that regardless of your hearing, you lipread all the time. But there’s also research suggesting that you, like Rick Joy, can perceive speech from touching faces.
Try touching your own face. The most common Tadoma method is to place your thumb vertically across the lips. This allows you to distinguish some consonants (b vs. v) and vowels (oo vs. ee). Keeping your thumb in this position, place your index finger along your jaw-line. This helps you perceive syllable stress (PERmit vs. perMIT) and speech rate. Finally, drape your remaining three fingers down your neck to touch the vibrations of your Adam’s apple. The timing between these vibrations and the lips’ motions allows you to feel the difference between ‘voiced’ and ‘voiceless’ consonants such as b vs. p. Intonation (changing voice pitch) can also be felt in these vibrations. How good can you get at Tadoma? Research suggests that with a hundred hours of practice, you could perceive sentences well enough to have simple conversations.
But even without ever having tried Tadoma, the speech you touch can actually override the speech you hear. When naïve subjects are asked to touch the face of a talker silently articulating ba as they simultaneously hear da (played over a loudspeaker), they will often report that they’ve heard ‘ba’. What subjects feel influences what they hear, despite never before having perceived speech from touch. It seems your brain is ready to use all types of speech information even if it’s a type you've never used before.
Later on, I ask Rick Joy if some talkers are harder to understand than others. He answers, “Yes. Women and children are harder because their voices are higher. Higher voice vibrations are harder to feel on the neck. Men are easier to understand, unless they have beards.” As he says this, he smiles and gently tugs on my beard. He leaves his fingers there to wait for my response.
Reed, C. M., Rabinowitz, W. M., Durlach, N. I., Braids, L. D., Conway-Fithian, S., & Schultz, M. C. (1985). Research on the Tadoma method of speech communication. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 77, 247–257.
Fowler, C. A., & Dekle, D. J. (1991). Listening with eye and hand: Cross-modal contributions to speech perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 17, 816–828.