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.
Develops New Sign Communication System
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.
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.
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.
inspiration for designing such a sign system came from Gail S. Mayfield,
who ran a schools 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.
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 so successfully.
"It is unusual for an undergraduate student to be involved
in a project that spans several years."
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 ones
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
will present her thesis on the "Memory and Recall of Signs
Project" on May 2, just after her Simplified Sign System goes
online at www.simplifiedsigns.org. 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
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."
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.
hope that the system will enable many mute, or essentially mute,
individuals to communicate their basic needs or desires more effectively,"
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,"
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
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."
excited about pursuing her goal of becoming a surgeon, she plans
to continue helping Bonvillian by updating the sign system on the
Loncke, a psycholinguist who has worked with nonspeaking children
in Belgium, and several other undergraduate students, also assisted
Kissane with the project.
Ida Lee Wootten, (804) 924-6857