Communicating using sign language

Sign language is a visual means of communicating using gestures, hand movements, body language and facial expressions to communicate, connect with people and give and receive information.

You can use sign language on its own or as part of a total communication approach that combines a sign language system, such as British Sign Language (BSL), with other communication methods.

British Sign Language (BSL)

In the UK, the term sign language usually refers to BSL. BSL is a complete language with a unique vocabulary, word order and grammar.

BSL uses hand signs and facial expressions as a visual form of communication, and is mainly used by people with a hearing impairment.

If you have a visual impairment, however, you can adapt BSL to work for you.

Visual frame signing, for example, is where a person signs using BSL within your field of vision. Hands-on signing, where you place your hands over the hands of the signer so that you can feel the signs being formed, can also be used.

Sign Supported English (SSE)

Sign Supported English (SSE) uses BSL signs but in the order they are used in spoken English.

Social haptic communication

Social haptic communication can be used to supplement the information you receive through other methods of communication, such as speech or sign language.

It consists of tactile signs that describe the environment, emotional responses, descriptions of people and other additional information that is usually provided by sight.

The signs are given through touch, commonly on your back, but can be anywhere on the body that doesn’t interfere with other communication methods.


Makton is not a formal sign language, but it does use signs, as well as symbols and speech, to develop communication, language and literacy skills.

There are three levels of Makaton, which can be tailored to your communication needs:

  • Functional use: a 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: an advanced level where symbols and signs are used for every word of the message or sentence.

Makaton symbols can also be used to choose between particular activities in a similar way to using objects of reference and picture symbols.

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