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A Publication about Visual Impairments and Deafblindness for Families and Professionals

By Doug McLean, Father of Daniel, an 8 year old with CHARGE Syndrome who has deafblindness and autism.

Abstract: A father of a boy with deafblindness introduces a new sign for empathy.

Keywords: deafblind, CHARGE syndrome, sign, gesture

What is the "i Is for Empathy" gesture? Start with one hand clenched in a fist, extend the “pinky” (small) finger…this is the letter “i” symbol in American Sign Language.

To express empathy: Hold the fist with pinky extended over your heart as you look at the person you empathize with. Optionally, also then extend your hand and point at them with your pinky/small finger.

To receive empathy or assistance: Hold the fist with pinky extended straight up over your head (as you might hold your hand up in class, but with only pinky extended).

i for empathy signWHY “i for Empathy”?

Empathy has to start with the individual, either as “I Empathize” with you, or “I need Empathy/Assistance”. Empathy must be felt by the “i” in all of us to either give or receive it.

Why this Gesture? Do we need it?

The inspiration was my son, Daniel, who is deafblind with autism…he is non-verbal and I wanted to develop a way for him to express if he needs help or assistance. He doesn’t speak and can only sign some very basic ASL signs. I imagined him lost or confused without his family around…who will understand his need for help??? If we have a widely recognized simple gesture that is understood…the rest of us can benefit. 

Example of “i Express Empathy”

You see someone is struggling, or having a bad day. You smile and show them the “i for Empathy” sign over your heart. This indicates that you empathize with them, their struggle is yours, you are a friend, you would be willing to assist if they need it. You’ve shared Empathy.

Example of “i Need Empathy/Assistance”

In concerts, people are clustered together in large groups, with the inability to move easily and due to loud noise, are effectively deaf for that time. In an emergency, such as if someone passed out and was needing medical help in the middle of a large crowd, it takes valuable time to get the attention of Staff/Security…waving hands, shouting, yelling don’t work. If the people around the emergency held up their collective hands with the “i for Empathy” gesture…a visible sign that multiple people think there is a need for Empathy/Assistance there…security could recognize an area in the crowd that needs attention quickly. A Person in Need has received the Empathy and Assistance they needed.

This gesture is not an American Sign Language sign, it is an invention and an attempt to cross over the boundaries between the hearing and deaf communities and generate a new common sign and gesture widely recognized by general society.

Who can use this gesture, and how?

Autistic/non-verbal individuals can be taught. Lost in New York? Need Directions? Raise the “i for Empathy” hand and let people come help you. Someone struggling? Want to see if you can help? “I for Empathy” over your heart shows you care and could help if they want it. Many other uses will be created in various situations.

What is the empathy button?

Social Media is ubiquitous and often expresses emotions. An Empathy Button Icon can share this emotion. The “i for Empathy” gesture can easily be expressed by a iconic representation and can be SHARED easily to show support/Empathy for the individual. We hope that Facebook, Buzzfeed, Twitter, etc. utilize the Empathy Button to convey this sentiment…and by doing so will also promote the gesture into our everyday lives.