Experiencing a groundbreaking film through tactile sign language

The deaf-blind community is often forgotten.

"I have experienced many people who are afraid to approach me," Blaze Dallahassee, who is deaf and blind, told FOX 5 NY through an interpreter. "Afraid to help me do something, like cross the street or read a communication card or engage with print on palm."

The Helen Keller National Center, based on Long Island, is working to break that stigma.

"Most people believe living a deaf-blind experience is just similar to that person known as Helen Keller," right," Associate Executive Director Chris Woodfill said through an interpreter. "Helen Keller was a deaf-blind individual but that actually is not the only life experience. There is a broad spectrum of life experiences within the community."

Over a year ago, filmmaker Doug Roland approached the center to help him cast a deaf-blind man for his short film Feeling Through.

The film is breaking barriers by casting the first-ever deaf-blind man, Robert Tarango, in a leading role. Feeling Through is about the unlikely connection between a teen in need and a deaf-blind man. Last month was the screening at the Landmark Theatre in Manhattan

"My experience watching the film gave me the chills," Dallahassee said. "It was the first time that they showed people how and what, in terms of a movie, that embraces touch, you got to see guiding techniques."

Coming to the movie theatre isn't necessarily new to Dallahassee. However, not all theaters are accessible, which makes it difficult for a deaf-blind individual to enjoy something that many of us take for granted.

"What really makes that difference is having interpreters. And for some people who are deaf-blind, that is a one-on-one tactile interpreter or someone who is accessing sign language visually," HKNC Executive Director Susan Ruzenski said. "There is also assisted-listening devices that are available and the captioning that goes along with the movie. There is a lot we need to think about so each movie can have equal access."


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The Helen Keller National Center made sure all those amenities were available for the screening. Dallahassee was able to enjoy the movie thanks to his interpreters who were signing to him what was on the screen using both tactile and pro-tactile sign language.

"I have an interpreter sign into my hand so I can envision what is on the screen and what the actors are doing," Dallahassee said. "They will explain to me the action, what's happening and everything in terms of movement will be tactile sign language or touch."

Communicating through touch is called pro-tactile. Pro-tactile American Sign Language was established in 2007. It is a philosophy and movement within the adult deaf-blind community.

"If I have an interpreter interpreting through tactile sign language for the language part and action part, sometimes pro-tactile is a way to express the point more clearly of where something is happening or where a particular movement is," Dallahassee said.

For example, if someone in the movie is laughing, the interpreter can let him know by touching his back or shoulder.

"Touch is communication technique and now we are seeing it more and more throughout the deaf-blind community," Dallahassee said. "The movie itself gave me the absolute goosebumps."

The Helen Keller National Center says its goal this year is to partner with some theaters to provide accessibility for all.