Sign systems and languages

British Sign Language or BSL - is a language in its own right, with its own word order and grammar. It uses hand signs and facial expressions as a visual form of communication.

A woman signs in a room of peopleIt is predominantly used by members of the Deaf community, but some people who are deafblind use it as well. For example, it is commonly used by people with Usher syndrome type 1.

Because of their restricted vision, some people with Usher syndrome may adapt British Sign Language in two ways:

  1. Visual frame signing – someone using BSL will sign within the visual field of the person with Usher syndrome (who has restricted vision) so that they can see it.
  2. Hands-on signing - some people may use tactile or ‘hands-on’ signing by placing their hands over the hands of the signer, so that they can feel the signs being used.
    People with Usher syndrome may learn this form of communication as their sight reduces.

Sign-supported English - uses BSL signs but in the order that they would be used in spoken English.

Haptic communication – is becoming more recognised as a form of communication that can be used by deafblind people to supplement the information they are receiving by their main receptive method of communication, eg speech or sign language.

It consists of tactile signs describing the environment, emotional responses, descriptions of people and other additional information which would otherwise be provided by sight.

The signs are given through touch, commonly to the back, but it can be anywhere on the body that doesn’t interfere with other communication methods being used that the recipient is comfortable with.

Makaton - uses signs, symbols and speech to develop communication, language and literacy skills.

There are three levels of Makaton, used according to the individual circumstances and abilities of the multi-sensory-impaired person:

  • Functional use - basic level where one sign represents a whole message or sentence
  • Keyword use - a number of symbols and signs are used to convey the meaning of the message or sentence, but without using grammar
  • Symbol reading - the most advanced level where symbols and signs are used for every word of the message or sentence

Makaton symbols can also be used to enable choice between particular activities, similar to objects of reference and picture symbols.

Find out more on the Makaton Charity website.


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First published: Monday 21 May 2012
Updated: Wednesday 22 February 2017