The road to Symbolization: the Case of Gerda

As head of the Deafblind Department Rafael, I was quite involved in Gerda’s "path to symbolism."

Gerda was born deafblind due to CRS. She has some useful hearing, but is totally blind. Gerda initiated her first sign when she was about 10 years old. Every morning she helped make her bed. When she touched the soft blanket, she would bring it up to her face and "caress" her cheek by rotating the blanket against it. One day her teacher decided to interrupt the routine by removing the blanket. Gerda then initiated her first sign, by making the rotating movement. From this moment on, she began initiating several signs that were understood and accepted by people in her environment.

When Gerda had about 50 "home signs," it was decided to introduce a more formal signing system. At the Institute, a system of sign-supported Dutch has been used for a long time (the Van Beek System). In this system, signs incorporate letters of the manual alphabet for the deaf. For example, the sign for "kapot" (broken) is made with both hands forming the manual letter "K" breaking away from each other. Gerda had difficulty learning these kinds of signs. The manual alphabet (finger spelling) gradually became her most proficient communication method.

In the photos below, Mrs. Ria van Hedel, Gerda's dedicated speech teacher, teaches Gerda speech via the TADOMA method and finger spelling in the hand.

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In the following video clip, Gerda communicates with Wilma, her teacher. Notice how Gerda checks her own speech production by feeling her mouth. You can see how proficient Gerda became in finger spelling. Finger spelling was combined with the TADOMA method. By putting her fingers on a speaker’s mouth, Gerda was able to "read" the person’s speech.


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In the later years of her adolescence, Gerda quickly learned the basic vocabulary of Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN), by feeling and following the movements of her conversational partner’s hands (tactual signing).

An example of tactual signing can be seen on the following video clip.

Hassan is deafblind and uses tactile signing

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