May 18-24, 2001
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Waters' mission runs deep
Two graduates honored for their service to humanity
Student aids the homeless

Mellon winner redefines "Jim Crow" era

Pre-med student shares his passion for music
Fast-track grad driven to help his family
Student leads effort to install Braille on Lawn room doors
Creative recycling: Students convert crate into studio
Lawson lives richly
Can you go home again? Issues facing international students
Education delayed but not denied
Weaver finds election laws discriminatory
Quilter gets A+
Students to go abroad on Fulbright scholarships
Weddle will research Peruvian women
Graduate rich in lessons learned
Anthony defender of public good
Affinnih plays her cards strategically
After earning degree in two years, graduate going for two more
Student develops new sign language system
Student trio pushes for late-night joe

Nikki Kissane Student develops new sign language system

By Ida Lee Wootten

Figuring out how to communicate effectively with simple gestures has not been an easy task for U.Va. student Nikki Kissane. But thanks to her research efforts, mute children and adults or those with limited speech capabilities have a new simplified communication system that is easier to learn, produce and understand than existing sign languages.

Kissane, a fourth-year student in the distinguished majors program in psychology, has developed a 500-word lexicon in a simplified sign language system to facilitate communication with stroke victims, children with autism or mental retardation, and individuals with cerebral palsy. The system was posted on the Internet in April and got more than 600 hits in the first week. It is being taught to care providers and will likely be published as a book.

Wow — Nikki Kissane developed a simplified sign communication system for children and adults with limited speech abilities. Here she expresses the signs
for “surprise,” “walking” and “friend.”

An aspiring surgeon, Kissane began the research project during her first year at U.Va. After witnessing her grandfather suffer a series of strokes and seeing the physiological and emotional difficulties he experienced, Kissane approached psychology professor John Bonvillian to see if she could participate in his ongoing research on sign-language communication for nonspeaking but hearing individuals.

His research team was beginning to develop a sign communication system that does not rely on complex hand shapes, manual dexterity and the ability to make mental connections between signs and their meanings.

The inspiration for designing such a sign system came from Gail S. Mayfield, who ran the autism unit at Grafton School, which focuses on children with special cognitive and emotional needs, Bonvillian said.

“I remember agreeing with Gail that such a system would be quite worthwhile, but thinking that such an undertaking would be a complex task that would take years to accomplish,” Bonvillian said. He credits Kissane’s 600 hours of work in advancing the project so successfully.

Filip Loncke, a psycholinguist who has worked with nonspeaking children in Belgium, and several other undergraduate students, also assisted Kissane on the project.

Kissane studied more than 20 sign language dictionaries to identify signs that are “iconic,” those clearly resembling the object or action they represent, or “transparent,” those that easily convey their meaning. To illustrate, cradling one’s arms while gently rocking back and forth would be a transparent sign for “baby,” whereas gesturing throwing a ball would be an iconic gesture for “throw.”

From her research, Kissane identified about 900 signs for such everyday words as “comb,” “book” and “reach” that have the potential of being easily understood and communicated through simple hand and arm gestures. She also created numerous new signs to supplement those she found in her search.

To determine if such signs could be incorporated into a simplified system, she had volunteer U.Va. students view different groups of signs to see which ones they could remember and repeat easily. All signs recalled perfectly by at least 70 percent of the participants were added to a lexicon.

Kissane also observed some classes led by her mother, who teaches elementary school art to children, including several with autism. She gained pointers from her mother on how to draw the gestures.

“I observed a few of the classes to see where autistic children struggle in motor and cognitive skills, so I could further understand their unique needs,” Kissane said.

After graduating from U.Va., she will enter the Medical College of Virginia in the fall and plans to complete a residency in orthopaedic surgery. “I want to have a good rapport with patients,” Kissane said.

Kissane, who has had an interest in medicine since she was four, sees the language-development experience as building her compassion for others. “The simplified sign language has taught me to think on a deeper level about patients’ problems and the source of their difficulties,” she said.

She plans to continue updating the sign system on the Web site.

Thanks to Nikki Kissane’s research, mute children and adults or those with limited speech capabilities have a new simplified communication system that is easier to learn, produce and understand than existing sign languages.



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