develops new sign language system
Ida Lee Wootten
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 Kissanes 600 hours of work in advancing the project
Loncke, a psycholinguist who has worked with nonspeaking children
in Belgium, and several other undergraduate students, also assisted
Kissane on the project.
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 ones
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
plans to continue updating the sign system on the Web site.
to Nikki Kissanes 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.