A revelatory collection of essays on the DeafBlind experience and the untapped potential of a new tactile language.
Born Deaf into an ASL-speaking family and blind by adolescence, John Lee Clark learned to embrace the possibilities of his tactile world. He is on the frontlines of the Protactile movement, which gave birth to an unprecedented language and way of life based on physical connection.
In a series of paradigm-shifting essays, Clark reports on seismic developments within the DeafBlind community and challenges the limitations of sighted and hearing norms. In "Against Access," he interrogates the prevailing advocacy for "accessibility" that re-creates a shadow of a hearing-sighted experience, and in "Tactile Art," he describes his relationship to visual art and breathtaking encounters with tactile sculpture. He offers a brief history of the term "DeafBlind," distills societal discrimination against DeafBlind people into "Distantism," sheds light on the riches of online community, and advocates for "Co-Navigation," a new way of exploring the world together without a traditional guide.
Touch the Future brims with passion, energy, humor, and imagination as Clark takes us by the hand and welcomes us into the exciting landscape of Protactile communication. A distinct language of taps, signs, and reciprocal contact, Protactile emerged from the inadequacies of ASL—a visual language even when pressed into someone’s hand—with the power to upend centuries of DeafBlind isolation.
As warm and witty as he is radical and inspiring, Clark encourages us—disabled and non-disabled alike—to reject stigma and discover the ways we are connected. Touch the Future is a dynamic appeal to rethink the meanings of disability, access, language, and inclusivity, and to reach for a future we can create together.
About the Author
John Lee Clark is an award-winning writer and Protactile educator. He has received the Krause Essay Prize and a National Magazine Award for his prose, and the Minnesota Book Award for his poetry collection How to Communicate. A 2021–2023 Bush Fellow, he lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with his partner, the ASL Deaf artist Adrean Clark, their three kids, and two cats.
[A] lively, inviting collection... [Clark is] able to draw a sharp distinction between different kinds of living, speaking fluently to those of us who experience the full use of our eyes and ears without thinking about it. — Anna Heyward - New York Times Book Review
Deafblind poet Clark serves up passionate meditations on the Deafblind Protactile movement... Clark’s bracing perspectives are sure to stimulate... Lucid and incisive, this is not to be missed. — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
In these compelling essays, [John Lee] Clark warmly welcomes us into this ‘new world’ [of Protactile], and his charm graces nearly every page. The author is a character in his own essays, weaving fables and legends together with undeniable craft. Funny, angry, and heroic, Clark is an amiable guide... Throughout this lively journey, Clark...relishes his ability to tell tales, break rules, and possibly change the world. An epic and riotous book. Ignore it, and you might get left behind. — Kirkus Reviews
John Lee Clark writes against the grain with intellectual ferocity and dry wit; with linguistic playfulness and unsparing precision; and above all, with an expansive, curious, tireless compassion. Society may ignore and isolate DeafBlind people, but as Clark shows us again and again, it is the sighted and hearing world that is marginalized by its failure to understand DeafBlind life, and never the other way around. — Andrew Leland, author of The Country of the Blind
John Lee Clark’s fervent manifesto for the Protactile language and movement will blow your mind, enliven your body, and connect you to other people in unexpected ways. Touch the Future is a book that enlarges the human world.
— Edward Hirsch, author of Stranger by Night
John Lee Clark’s essays radiate with excitement and urgency. Tenderly documenting the emerging social movement of Protactile, they call upon us all to think about distance, power, and access in much bolder ways. To read Clark is not simply to be taught something by him, but to find yourself immersed and seeking alongside him—you don’t just learn, you come away changed. — Katie Booth, author of The Invention of Miracles
Touch the Future opens doors to the multiple worlds of disability…This is a book for anyone who is interested in the life of the imagination and the mind.
— Stephen Kuusisto, author of Eavesdropping
John Lee Clark is equal parts master storyteller, wry comedian, erudite historian, and brilliant teacher... At times urgent, often hilarious, and always illuminating, Touch the Future will touch readers’ hearts while opening their minds to a whole new world.
— Robert Sieburt, coauthor of Deaf Utopia
Protactile leads the way in this exquisite book that invites us into the curious and joyful crafting of choreographies of encounter... This is not a book to hold at a distance. This is a book that teaches us how to get into the tangle, knee against knee, hand enthusiastically tapping the thigh, to feel the world differently. — Erin Manning, author of For a Pragmatics of the Useless
Through John Lee Clark's writing, we witness the emergence of a new language, new sensibilities, new art forms, new forms of embodiment and sociality—nothing less than a new mode of existence. Clark's eloquent writing brings to voice one of the most significant cultural movements of our time. — Brian Massumi, author of Parables for the Virtual