Søbo: It’s a matter of the touch

In the village of Sølund, there is a residence called Søbo with a special group of residents who have sight or hearing disabilities – or both. Working with people suffering from deafblindness requires a very particular pedagogical approach where the road to shared communication goes through the touch. In other words, it’s the tactile seses that are the leading factor of the communication, which makes the close one-on-one contact absolutely fundamental. Symbols and signs contribute to creating a shared language in an otherwise isolated world.

Af Helle Ibsen
Translated by Majbritt Sørensen

In many ways, a unique housing

In Søbo, the core service is defined as communication and activities that help make deafblind people more independent in their daily whereabouts as well as active in their own lives. The deputy manager of the residence, Marianne Trolle, provides us with an insight into what characterizes this group of residents, and how they, as staff and human beings, master the important task of opening the doors to a social and shared world.

There are eight residents in Søbo, of which four are suffering from deafblindness, while the others have a sight- or hearing disability. Their developmental age is between 6 months and 5 years old, and half of them are in a wheelchair. A characterising issue for this group is that they quickly disappear within themselves and close off if there are no external stimuli, as Marianne Trolle says: “They would be completely cut off from the outside world if they didn’t receive any input from us.” Most of them have lived at Sølund for many years, where a specialized offer for people suffering from deafblindness has been around since 1989. When you step inside the house, you immediately sense a structure in the interior decoration which helps shape and ease the everyday life for the residents. Here, the hallways need to be cleared, and things have to be placed in their usual place. You remember to put the chairs all the way under the table so no one will trip, and you put things in their rightful place. It requires a good amount of self-discipline and care in the daily routines.

The cosy common room with a kitchen, dining table and living room is surrounded by eight individual apartments which include private rooms and bathrooms. Outside of his or her apartment, every single resident has a nice symbol in ceramics that shows something the individual really enjoys; for instance, a bed or a beer bottle. Every time, the resident is led to his/her room, the staff lets them feel the symbol to make them aware of this being their home.

Guiding you by the hand, a strip connects the apartments and is marked with a number of buds depending on where you are on the route. Also, the floor is marked with a black square in a textured material which tells the resident that he is entering or exiting an apartment. As deafblind people develop an admirably great sensitivity in their hands and feet, these markings help provide them with a great sensation of spatiality and homeliness.

The decoration has been carried out in cooperation between Sølund’s own consultants and Centre for Deafblindness and Hearing Loss. Here, the staff has the opportunity for sparring and by putting emphasis on the individual resident’s needs and routines, the décor is continuously improved.

The conditions of communication

As an outsider, you are filled with admiration of how the residents and staff deal with the fact that the communication basically has extremely difficult circumstances. They create a shared language and make daily life work via touch, symbols and signs. Here, it’s a matter of being attentive, caring and especially structured in your contact with the resident.

Every resident has his or her own name sign, and every employee has their name sign and a symbol, which explains the rubber duck in Marianne Trolle’s keychain. In addition, every activity has a symbol. When working with a resident, the encounter always takes place with greeting the resident by introducing yourself via both name signs and the employee’s symbol, and then explaining to the resident what is about to happen via the symbols. In order to create a safe environment and avoid anxiety, it is important that the
deafblind is prepared for what the next step entails.

Another element to ensure security is that you maintain physical contact with the resident, for instance with your feet if your hands are busy pouring a cup of coffee. In addition, you let the resident know that you are walking away by letting two fingers walk up his or her arm. Marianne Trolle explains the pedagogical approach behind dealing with deafblindness: ”Preferably, the resident should be in as few hands as possible in order to provide them with reassurance and a close relationship. This also means that you don’t just say good morning to the entire group.” The resident cannot benefit from the sporadic and superficial contact at all, whilst the one-on-one contact is the best and most important thing in their lives. The heightened sensitive senses make the residents fully capable of telling who is who among the staff. It is decoded through smell and touch. They have their favourites, and they sense humoristic interaction and social moments. They can also tell if you are in too much of a hurry, “… then it’s typically a day where you don’t want to put on your sweater. It’s a way of letting you know that this is going too fast, and I don’t want to have any part of it. It’s a great resource to have,” Marianne Trolle explains. That’s why it is important to have the time, and slowing down the tempo – also to ensure that you catch up on the small signals. “The longer you work here, the better you get to know the residents, and the more exciting it gets. You get to know their different nuances, sounds and movements and you get better at interpreting them,” she continues.

Active in their own lives

Daily activities are a part of the residents’ everyday lives. They take part in swimming lessons, riding- and physiotherapy and various activities at The Residents House. They are also frequent guests at the Snoezelen, The Golden Horn, which is a really great offer for the deafblind with its many sensory experiences. Here, they can experience physical stimuli while interacting with someone else. A lot of activities also take place in Søbo itself. For instance, they cook a hot meal every Tuesday in order to spread the scent throughout the living rooms and thus creating a homely atmosphere.

The activities are on a fixed weekly pattern; a pattern that one of the residents has gotten to know over a period of time through the symbols. Every morning, he is presented with the day of the week, which has a specific symbol, and the activity of the day, and he carries the symbol of the day around his shoulders. It requires a persistent communal effort and a lot patience to build up a structural understanding like this – quite simple and yet extraordinary at the same time.

However, the many activities do require some consideration, as Marianne Troller puts it: “We are so eager to socialize the residents: Now they need to take part in this, that and the other. Now they need to be together in the common room and at activities – and they do enjoy it. However, we also need to remember that they have a harder time saying no, when they need to be alone. Here, they are completely dependent on where we place them. Thus, we have a great responsibility in decoding the signals and also prioritising the quiet moments. Be it tranquillity and closeness one-on-one or spending time alone with music and sensory stimuli.”

Self-determination and quality of life

In Søbo, they live by the principles that you have the right of self-determination in your own life. This is expressed in many ways in the daily life, for instance: the routines are flexible if a resident needs a little extra time in the morning to wake up. This also applies when it comes to the food, where the residents are offered alternatives if they turn down the hot meal. Along the same lines, an offer to take a ride on the exercise bike can be replaced by a walk outside.

In terms of the residents’ self-determination, picking and choosing always take place based on a professional assessment that helps secure their continued growth and quality of life. “You always think that you can move forward with the resident. It is part of the driving force. With some of our clientele, it’s the tiniest things that happen. But when they do happen, it’s quite incredible. We just need to be persistent enough. It’s a work of patience. Basically, we keep thinking: On to the next tiny step forward,” Marianne Trolle says.

For instance, through an intensive effort – including exercises, riding- and physiotherapy – one of the residents has built up a better balance which prevents her from falling when she bends over for her toys. This has increased her quality of life significantly. Otherwise, the residents’ quality of life is very much about closeness and contact; to sit arm in arm, holding hands or getting a massage. The quality of life is relational dependant, and thus also personal dependent, which is why a fixed and stabile staff is essential. Marianne Trolle says: “Luckily, most of us have stuck around for many years. And we can tell that this means security for our residents.”