A Contribution from the Deaf-Blind Department

by Dr. Jan van Dijk on Mar 1, 2001
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This chapter has two parts. First a statement of theory, written by Dr. van Dijk, entitled `The Motor Development of Deaf-Blind Children,' followed by an article which combines a précis of a talk he gave at the Conference. Both deal with the first steps of deaf-blind children towards developing language.

Reprint permission, courtesy of Dr. Jan van Dijk, 2001

Chapter III


St. Michielsgestel, Holland

THE IDEAS AND PRACTICES of Dr. J. van Dijk and his colleagues at St. Michielsgestel made a great impact on the Conference. To most delegates this came as a contribution from a new source, from a country where rapid strides are being made in the development of the education of deaf-blind children.

This chapter has three parts. It begins with a statement of theory, written by Dr. van Dijk, entitled `The Motor Development of Deaf-Blind Children'. This will be followed by an article, edited and summarized from another written contribution from Dr. van Dijk, with which has been combined a précis of a talk he gave at the Conference. Both dealt with the first steps of deaf-blind children towards language. The final part of the chapter will try to give a verbal picture of the specially produced film presented by the St. Michielsgestel staff and children. There will also be an account of some of the discussions which followed the film, which showed work with the wide variety of children afflicted with defects of vision and hearing and with very different mental powers, with which most of us have to deal nowadays-rather than `purely' deaf-blind children.



Deaf-Blind Children

By DR. J. VAN Dijk (Deaf-Blind Department, School for the Deaf, St. Michielsgestel, Holland)

In 1957, an article entitled `What Do You Mean by Hopeless?', appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.The article considered the education of the deaf-blind. One often encounters the word `hopeless' in discussions about the education of deaf-blind children. These are children with whom one can't communicate in the usual way, children who express their feelings, which are not differentiated, in a way which, then, is not ordered-`Children of the Silent Night'. In one sense the deaf-blind child can be compared with the very young child: for him, the world outside himself does not exist. When studying these children initially, it would seem that Strauss is right when he says, about children in their pre-lingual phase, `you can only speak in negatives about them'.

But this is not completely true. Experiments and observations can tell us something of the `densely unclear levels of consciousness' (dumpfe, unklare Bewustscinslagen-Stern 6).

The use of psychological methods in actual participation with a number of deaf-blind children gave us some insight into the world of these children. We tried to approach the total child in his existence. To describe this, we will use examples. However, in this study, the examples have a deeper meaning than that of illustrations; they help us to understand the basic phenomenon: the outgrowth of this human being to a world in which he is no longer `at the mercy of (vollkommenubergeliefert) .

Work and research in the orthopedagogies (the science of the education of exceptional children) has been a stimulation for differentiation of groupings in special education. Initially, the pedagogies gave attention to children with physical handicaps-the deaf and the blind. Further research during the past decades, found norms which differentiated between the blind and the partially sighted, the deaf and the hard-of-hearing. Consequently, our schools for the deaf and for the blind sub-divided, resulting in programs for the hard-of-hearing and the partially sighted. From this point of view, it can be realized how attention came to be focused on such a small group as that of deafbIind children. For three years, the School for the Deaf in Saint Michielsgestel (Holland) has been engaged in the education of a group of these deaf-blind children.

In 1954, the National Study Committee for the Education of DeafBlind Children in the U.S.A. adopted the following definition of a deaf-blind child `. . . there is a wide range of disabilities in this double handicap, and defines a deaf-blind child as one whose combination of handicaps prevents him from profiting satisfactorily from educational programmes provided for the blind child or the deaf child.'

This description points out the special character of these children from an educational point of view. It does not, however, say anything about the unique being (Dasein) of deaf-blind children. A deaf-blind child has his own way of handling things which is not a simple summation of the ways of a blind child and of a deaf child. Deaf-blindness is characterized by a unique way of being.

In attempting to describe this unique being, fundamental questions are raised: What is another human being when he can neither be seen or heard? What qualities can be realized through only tactile impressions ? This brings us to the essential problem necessary for psychological understanding: What is the world of the deaf-blind child?

Let us make some general statements: Judging from the behaviour of the children with whom I worked for some time, I dare say their world goes no further than their own body. It is the goal of education to enlarge this world, that is, to humanize this child. This education must encourage a distance between Me-the Ego-and Things. Let us define this concept of distance with an example. Imagine a pig eating (fressen). He consumes the food; he is `together' with the food; he devours it; he absolutely cannot wait to eat. He is reacting to the food only to satisfy himself. He is involved with the food. Consider in contrast the human being. What do you see when he is eating? Sometimes, true, he may appear to eat more like a pig than not. But, he is capable of taking distance from the food-me and the food. It is this phenomenon of distance which we wish to consider with regard to deaf-blind children. Let us try to describe the being of these children through some examples and at the same time we will come still closer to our focal topic.

Theo:Half a year ago, we visited him for the first time, 6 years and 1 month old. Etiology: maternal rubella. Congenital heart condition. Some residual vision. Audiological test: no response. At the age of 3 ½, he walked. After moving about at first `on his bottom', he stood up and walked, without passing through the stage of creeping. He walked, hunched over, about the room, knocking with his fingers on objects which he encountered. He was well-oriented. His thumb was pushed into his left eye. At first we interpreted his way of touching to ' e a real exploration of space. However, it later became evident at this seemed not to be true, since he touched new objects in the same rapid way in which he touched familiar ones. He `played' only with a pencil which he moved in front of his eyes. He held the pencil between thumb and index finger. By holding objects in this way, the function of grasping remained totally undeveloped. He grasped nothing with the hand fully in contact. Functions such as carrying and pushing were undeveloped, as were also jumping and walking. We enrolled Theo in our department. In a sense, both gross motor function and fine motor function were `developed'-but in such a way that it was impossible to start education at an academic level.

Traditionally, the initial aim of education is to teach the child to consciousness of symbols, and from there to develop communication at a level of language-not just signification-through a means such as finger-spelling, signs or speech. I mention speech last as a means of communication, not because it is least important, but because it is the most difficult. Speech demands very good development of a finely coordinated system: the articu-lomotor system. The deaf-blind child, in order to speak, must learn to imitate the sounds which he feels with his hand on the face of the speaker (The Tadoma Method). Moreover, there is no system more ordered than the language system. It demands psychological distance, in a phenomenological sense. In language I use words to point to what I mean. Using language requires a partial relinquishment of the vital-concrete situation of actually handling things in favour of the more abstract level of talking about things. The experience is different `if your mother takes you in her arms and cradles you' or if she says, `You are a nice boy.' It is evident, when you consider in these terms the demands which language makes upon the child's development, that the child, Theo, described above, is not yet at *his level-when there is only a concern with his own body; when the child's actions intend only to stimulate a very somatic satisfaction; when there is no distance. In the work with Theo, we came to the conclusion that there is an order to the development of movements. The gross as well as the finer movements have to be developed before you can begin a more formal education. By this we mean more than that the child's back muscles should be strong enough to enable him to sit during the time of instruction. Let us look at motor development in a broader sense. `...motor activity is one of the early ways of knowing the world and its objects...' (Werner 8, p. 7). By feeling and touching and mowing things, the child discovers things.

We believe that, in terms of motor development, there is something to be learned from the psychology of animals. Werner 7draws a very striking parallel between animal and child psychology. He gives the following example:

"What, for example, is a "Chair" or a "basket" for the dog? The experiment was conducted in such a way that the animal learned to obey a command associated with the thing in mind. It was taught, for instance, to jump up on a common, everyday chair at the command of "Chair!" After successful training, the next step was to find out just how much a chair could be altered in appearance and still have the dog react to the command "Chair!" In other words, what are the properties of an object necessary to occasion the right response? It was discovered that any object, whatever it may be for the human being, has the significance of "chair" for the dog, if it can jump on to it, lie down on it, and look around. A "basket" may be a dog kennel, or a coal bucket lying on its side, or any hollowed-out object. The dog jumped into a wooden box open at the top upon hearing the command "Basket!" Conversely when the box was covered with a lid, the dog was prompted by the command "Chair!" and not by "Basket!" ' (p. 61).

What were the results in a similar situation with one of our deafblind children? The boy had learned to match combs. While learning this activity, he always moved his tongue along the teeth of the comb before he matched. When we covered his mouth with a cloth, he ran into difficulty. The comb got its first `valence' through this motor activity. Through this type of experience, we came to the conclusion thatthings for these children are, in the beginning (referring to the ideas of Werner), `things-of-action'.

Space, too, is `action-space'. We explored this principle by dividing the space around the child into sections-one in which the child could play with a swing and one in which he could climb. To accustom a child to a sequence of actions, we constructed routes with benches, rough mats, and climbing racks. The child is taught to walk over the bench, creep over the mat, and climb over the climbing rack. Then obstacles were put at certain points along the route. We were curious about whether or not he could deal with the obstacles after going through the sequence a few times. Would the child learn that he could only get through ropes which were tied tightly across the path by creeping under the rope? And would he learn that when he tried to step over the lower rope, he would hit his face on the second one? The children needed a great deal of help in this learning process.

In another situation, the child is helped to walk with a wooden block under each foot. He becomes aware of the person who helps him to drag the blocks under his feet. He comes to know him as a person whom he can trust, because he is given just enough help by the person so that he succeeds. In passing, perhaps it is interesting, in a phenomenological way, to note that the children prefer to have the person helping them 'face' them-stand in front of them-rather than behind.

Let's try to explain another important principle of learning in the same area. We worked with a child (6 years old) who could walk but not creep. From several points of view, we were convinced of the importance of missing no stage in the sequence of motor development. How should we teach him to creep? Should we force him? But he was resistant. You cannot make a child move. So, we put some candy on the other side of theroom. He was permitted to eat the candy only when he reached the spot by creeping. Although he was at a low level of development, he understood after many trials that we expected him to creep. But he crept by putting his hands in front of him and pushing on his knees. When we covered the smooth floor with a leather mat, he crept in the proper way.

Two very important phenomena in a bi-univogue relationship are at the base of this success; the situation in which the child is motivated at the hands of the teacher. The `situation' is the totality of relations. You share the situation; you share the common sense of the relationship. The child is not motivated by a spontaneous need for moving. The teacher must awaken this need. Actually, the teacher must awaken the feeling that he can move. Buhler has often been misunderstood when she speaks of `Funktionslust' -pleasure in function. The child is glad that he has the capacity to move. You can put a child in a swing (we are aware of the passive involvement in swinging and rocking) even when he resists in the beginning. We hope that he will learn to like going up and down. We can be satisfied if he does it himself-if he has the experience: `I can do it'. This is the fruitful moment in dealing with the child which contributes toward his humanization-toward his becoming a person. It is not simply a question of natural growth or maturation. (Wachsenlassen). If we work with the principle of maturation in the orthopedagogies, the child will stay too long on this level of self-satisfaction. Indeed education is, in the case of these deaf-blind children, 'Fuhren'-direction, with the principles mentioned above in mind. But we also are guilty of pedagogical negativism if we emphasize the influence of the educator too much. It is impossible to divide the behaviour of the child into that resulting from maturation and that resulting from education. Langeveld 4 described the human being as an `animal educandum'- an animal depending on education. In working with these children, one is inclined to emphasize too much `the animal' and too little `educandum'. When we reflect upon what has been said about the importance of the motor behaviour in connection with the goal of education, motor development becomes significant as a central portion of the totality of education. I cannot capture the real essence better than with the words of Buytendijk 3 when he speaks about communication. After he has explained that communication with the world means an inter-personal communication, he continues:

`Everyday life shows us these basic phenomena: meeting and relationship, mimic and signs, conversation and sympathy, etc.'

We have objections to taking educational conclusions directly from the results of anthropology. Nevertheless, we have to keep in mind in the education of these children what really is characteristic of a human being (das eigentumlich Menschlichen). This convinced us that we only get an open communication with the world in a moving-acting relationship-toward-each-other. In this way, motor movement has a larger meaning than that which we mean when we say `gymnastic'. We place motor development in the centre of a closed world-a world which opens from a growing and developing body.

To state the thought in another way, in being with you in the moving-acting situation, the child will discover himself and the world on you and the world. He will discover his own body as an instrument with which he can explore the world. The primary meaning of this world is action-meaning. A young normal child is pulled into the world by the invitation of the world. The mother with her arms spread wide invites him to come; her smile invites him to smile; the ball asks to be rolled; the box to be filled; the chair to be crept under. So he discovers himself and the world on the world and on the stimulation of the world (educandum).

The world does not have this inviting character for the children upon whom we are focusing. The pedagogue has to be there to invite him; together they go out on their discovery. `Go out' is to be taken literally. In moving-acting-together with things, the world acquires its first meaning-as an `action-world' as we described above. Through the discovery of his body as a more and more finely differentiated instrument, his relation toward the world changes. The vital relationship develops into a relationship in which the child has more freedom- command over. Things become more constant. There is a greater distance. Referring to our example, the comb then gets its significance as an instrument for the hair. This is the moment in which the real function of language is achieved. The comb is represented by a symbol.

This is the meaning of motor activity in this unique exponent of special education. In this field, a simple task for the child becomes a monumental task of understanding on our part, and any glimmer of possibility must be used in helping the child. Both from a theoretical and from a practical point of view, we have come to these conclusions. This is a first attempt to apply the modern version of child development to special education.

Note: This presentation is a translation, with some additions and changes, of the article, `Plaats van da Motoriek in het onder wijs aan doof-blinde kenderen', by Mr. van Dijk, and originally published in Tomas van Aquinio,Den Bosch, Holland, March, 1963.


1. Buhler, Ch., `The first year of life.' 1930.

2. Busman, A., `Milieu unit Selbstbewustsein.' Leipzieg, 1932.

3. Buytendijk, F. J. J., `Die Frau, Natur, Ershceinung, Dasein'. Kian, 1953.

4. Lanqeveld,J. J., 'Studien sur Antropologie des Kindes.' Tubingen, 1956.

5. Merleau-Ponty, M., 'Phenomenologie de la perception.'

6. Stern, W., `Psychologie der fruhen Kindheit his zum sechsten.' Lebensjahr, 1952.

7. Werner, `Comparative Psychology of Mental Development.' Science Editions 1961, (1948).

8. Werner, `Significance of General Experimental Psychology for the Understanding of Abnormal Behaviour and Its Correction or Prevention'. Clark U., 1959.

9. Weinstein, B., 'The evolution of intelligent behaviour in rhesus monkeys.' Genetic Ps. Mon. Febr., 1945.

10. Vliegenthart, W. F., `Op gespannen voet.' Groningen, 1959 (English summary).

11. Hanson, W., 'Die Entwicklung des kindlichen Weltbildes.' Munchen, 1955.



By Dr. J. VAN DijK

We started our work with deaf-blind children four years ago. At present we have thirteen children, of whom eight are rubella type. Most of them were very retarded-you know the variety of strange symptoms they show: strange motor movements, waving hands before the eyes, uninterested, hyperactive, etc.

To work with these children one must have a good theoretical background and you must start working with the child right down at his level, and this can mean an almost unbelievably low level of development. We soon discovered that the usual classroom with traditional apparatus was not the place to work with these children, who were so bound up in their own world that they make no contacts and relationships. Some do not know their own parents and they do not know themselves. We cannot put such a child on a chair in a classroom, putting pegs in holes or shapes in a form board; we must start where the child is, that is still within his body. We have to develop his ego consciousness so that he knows, `I am.' `This is me.'

Modern thinking about the importance of the body has changed. Until recently the body was only considered as a medium, as an instrument to be used. 'Functionalist' psychology has stressed that not only have I a body, at the same time I am a body. The existentialist philosophy would express it that through developing relationships towards the world one becomes oneself.

So we have changed our traditional classroom programme to a motor programme. When the retarded deaf-blind child is moving towards things and with things with changing situations between `me' and `that', he discovers like the very normal young child does when he starts moving that he is moving while other things stay in their place.

Development is a kind of dialogue between the child and the world in which the world has its part. Things move backwards and forwards; some things are more `inviting' than others. For instance, a long rope invites to be followed, a ball invites to be thrown, a basket invites to be filled.

In the film which we shall present to you at this conference you will see children with some of these inviting thing's and in working with them the child's first concepts are born. Study of aphasia and language disorders has shown that the basis of our concepts lies in the motor patterns we get from working with things. In working with our children we must ensure the children experience things as things of action. I refer you to the work of Piaget, Werner and Oleron, the latter particularly for the study of deaf children.

I now wish to refer to another important factor-the development of the body schema or body image. We have found with some of our children, who wish to go through the rungs of a ladder, that they put their head through one gap and their feet through another. They do not know where their arms and their feet are and they have no idea of the size of their body.

We know from the philosophy of language the importance of the body in language. When I say things such as `Before me', `Behind me', `Left', `Right', `over', `under', the position of the body is very clear. But how can these things have meaning if I do not know my body? How can I say `I am', `This is my hand', etc?

To develop the body image of the child we must move with him in giving him experiences and in this acting and moving with the child you already have some communication. With a child in a chair, giving him an occasional prod, there is no real communication as there is when you move with him helping him to crawl over a bench or under a bar.

I think we over-emphasize gestural and oral communication. There are many levels of communication before these and we must not omit them. We all know of the `signal behaviour' which you get with a child when language has been imposed on him before he was mature enough to understand it. So I say: `Be patient. Do not miss out the stages.'

What are the stages ? First there is the co-active movement and the development of the body schema which I have already described. I must emphasize that this is not imitation which comes later and has an element of reflection in it and an element of `distance'. You are them and I am here.

After co-active movement comes the important step of non-representational Reference. This non-representational reference is a part of normal development, as, for instance, when a mother just refers her baby to things-a bottle, etc. With our deaf-blind children we can use the body, e.g. `These are my arms.' `These are your arms.' (This is not matching.) Then you work with the child making sculptures of the body. You indicate: `Here are my legs and here are your legs', and then refer to the sculpture, hoping that the child will develop more reflective attitudes. The child understands that you are pointing to something.

Next comes the step of imitation when the child follows your example. You move part of your body, he moves his. You make a drawing and in his attempts to draw he may reveal the problems of an aphasic, partially-sighted deaf child, especially in asymmetrical movements. Here he must check his pictures with himself and find out the position of his limbs.

Following imitation comes the stage which some child psychologists consider to be crucial in the development of symbol-consciousness-the natural gesture. These natural gestures can only arise through experiencing their motor qualities. In every natural gesture of the normal child a motor component has been crystallized out of the totality of the action. You may object that a normal child does not use gestures, but he does. And this use of gestures precedes speech. Many times he will just be babbling until the gesture comes as the crystallizing point. Werner states that it is impossible for a child to acquire language without passing through the stage of natural gestures. It is, therefore, difficult to understand why some educators of the deaf, and even of the deaf-blind, are against introducing natural gestures.

Using natural gestures we have, in our school, after almost two years of work in the development of the body schema and the motor qualities of gesture, got six of our rubella children to the stage of using nouns.

The child's natural gestures are crystallization points towards the use of words. Instead of pulling you to the tap to get some water, a child can make use of his natural gesture for `drink', or instead of taking you to the cupboard when he wants a ball he can make his gesture for `ball'.

There are two important factors in the development of natural gestures-de-contextualization and de-naturalization. In de-contextualization the child may use the gesture in anticipation (when he stops outside the door of the kitchen and makes the sign for `drink'); or he may use a gesture learned at school in a different situation, e.g. at home. In de-naturalization, the child, instead of making the full natural gesture, begins to make a slight movement only. This slight movement may seem to be quite arbitrary, but its basis is a motor component of the original full gesture. For example the complete natural throwing gesture which may have indicated `ball', becomes simply a small movement of the hand, which is becoming something very like a symbol.

Vow has come the time for the slow introduction of the word through speech, finger-spelling, reading. You will see this stage demonstrated in our film by a child who, at one moment, almost drops the gesture because he is finding that his voice is his best medium for representation.

I hope I have not sounded too much as if I know everything. I trust, however, that people who are starting work with deaf-blind children will consider seriously what I have said. It is, I think, a new approach. May I summarize matters thus:

I hope educators of the deaf-blind will not simply place a child on a chair and say, `Stand up!' and `Sit down!'. We must study the pre-language stages thoroughly.

At first space, for the normal baby-and for the partially-sighted baby-is just the eye-hand space. When does such a baby first use his sight as a distance sense? When he looks towards a source of noise. Then, also, a baby has to discover that he makes noises himself and that the noises he makes are not just part of the noises around him.

I stress, therefore, the importance of us starting with the deaf-blind child, where he really is, and using with him those co-active, acting, moving, situations in which the child will get to know us and have confidence in us. Thus we can build our communication programmes from the development of ego-consciousness in association with the growth of the body schema, on through the stages I have mentioned, non-representational reference, imitation, natural gestures, with de-contextualization and de-naturalization, towards the beginnings of language.  

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