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Nikki Kissane
Stephanie Gross
Nikki is signing the word "friend," based on the new, simplified sign language she developed to work with mentally retarded and autistic children and adult stroke victims, undergoing rehab.

Simply Amazing

U.Va. Student Develops New Sign Communication System

April 30, 2001-- Figuring out how to communicate effectively with simple gestures has not been an easy task for University of Virginia student Nikki Kissane. But thanks to her efforts, mute children and adults or those with limited speech capabilities have a new simplified communication system that is easier to learn, use 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 system to facilitate communication with stroke victims, children with autism or mental retardation, and individuals with cerebral palsy. The system will be posted on the Internet in May, taught to care providers, and likely published as a book.

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, 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 arbitrary mental connections between signs and their meanings.

The inspiration for designing such a sign system came from Gail S. Mayfield, who ran a school’s autism unit, Bonvillian said. Mayfield had observed the difficulties mute autistic children experience when forming American Sign Language signs and had urged Bonvillian, an expert in language development, to create a system easier for autistic children to learn and remember.

"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. "It is unusual for an undergraduate student to be involved in a project that spans several years."

Knowing that each sign relies on three components — position of the arms and hands, shape of the hand, and movement of the sign -- 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 to throw 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 dictionary search.

To determine if such signs could be incorporated into a simplified system, she organized the possibilities into sets of 120 words. Volunteer U.Va. students viewed six lists, each containing 20 signs, at four-second intervals. The study participants were asked to repeat the signs back and were scored for accuracy. All signs recalled perfectly by at least 70 percent of the participants were added to a lexicon. Bonvillian and Kissane decided that if U.Va. students experienced difficulty in remembering or forming a sign after it was shown once, then the sign was likely too complex for nonspeaking individuals to learn.

After choosing which words to include in the lexicon, Kissane faced the challenge of drawing and performing the signs in an easily understood manner. The daughter of Antoinette and William John Kissane of Woodbridge, Kissane 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 how autistic children struggle in motor and cognitive skills, so I could further understand their unique needs," Kissane said.

She will present her thesis on the "Memory and Recall of Signs Project" on May 2, just after her Simplified Sign System goes online at Bonvillian and Kissane hope the Web site will foster feedback from parents and educators. They will use the feedback to revise and refine the list and likely add new signs.

"We also plan to publish a printed version once we receive feedback from users," Bonvillian said. "In the printed version, we will provide information on research conducted on how best to teach or train nonspeaking people on such sign systems."

Kissane and Bonvillian believe that family members, caretakers and hospital and institution staff will use the new system, since it is easy to comprehend with minimal sign training.

"We hope that the system will enable many mute, or essentially mute, individuals to communicate their basic needs or desires more effectively," Bonvillian 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.

After graduating from U.Va. with roughly a 3.6 GPA, 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," said Kissane, who views surgery as "fast-change artistry."

She adds, "Through surgery, one can directly affect patients and make an immediate difference in their lives. This immediate change has a huge impact on patients and their loved ones. A surgeon should recognize that and be compassionate and understanding."

Although excited about pursuing her goal of becoming a surgeon, she plans to continue helping Bonvillian by updating the sign system on the Web site.

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

Contact: Ida Lee Wootten, (804) 924-6857

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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