An in-depth look at the possible benefits of using manual sign systems such as Lámh

Benefits of signing: Communication

People generally do not communicate by spoken words alone. People communicate through facial expressions, body language, gestures, etc. Many children and adults with intellectual disability and communication needs can understand much more than they can express verbally.

Frustrations that may result from the person's inability to express themselves, and on their families and other communication partners trying to understand them, can be reduced by providing them with a way of communicating.

When a person uses sign, the listener can have a better chance of understanding the message. In this way, the person has a success experience of communicating. If when attempting to communicate no one ever understands, it is likely that you will give up. When you are understood you are delighted to realise you have been successful and are more likely to keep on trying! Thus there is a heightened willingness to try new words and say more.

When those communicating with the Lámh user use sign, it can help to slow their rate of speech. Many adults speak quickly, and that can have a negative effect on a person’s ability to understand and imitate. Slowing a little gives the person more time to understand and imitate.

Benefits of signing: Physical Attributes

In terms of the physical aspects and skills involved in signing, there are a number of areas to look at. For example, the use of signing encourages eye contact and attention to movements, needed for speech development.

The ability to gesture and to make signs comes earlier for many children than saying the corresponding word. For example, waving bye-bye, pushing items away or shaking head for 'no', or raising arms to be lifted up. Speech involves the complex coordination of muscles. For example, people with Down syndrome are more likely to have difficulty making speech sounds because they often have low muscle tone in and around the face, over- or under-sensitivities to touch in and around the mouth, or hearing impairments. However they often have relative strengths in motor development and visual perception. As a result, it is often easier for them to recognise and make gestures with their hands that it is for them to make speech sounds at first. The same is true for many other people who use Lámh.

Family members or staff can help a child to make signs more easily with hand-over-hand assistance. This is not possible with speech.

A high percentage of children with Down syndrome present with hearing loss. Some others with intellectual disability and communication needs have varying levels of hearing loss. They will benefit by seeing what someone is saying when they are having problems hearing it.

Spoken language occurs very quickly. A word is said, and then it's 'gone'. One can often 'hold' at least part of a sign in place, so that a person who needs extra time can inspect and re-inspect the signal.

Benefits of signing: Developmental

Language is learned in the 'give and take' of conversations. Signing can provide a means of taking part in these conversational exchanges and a person can progress into the arena of learning language, reinforcing basic language concepts and participating in the goings on of others even though s/he is not yet ready to use speech. Using sign assists people to use language and develop vocabulary despite the speech production struggle. They have a means to try out and practice how language works, rather than postponing it until they can master the skills necessary for speaking.

Signing by those with little or no speech/expressive language is important, as it involves symbolic communication, i.e. the use of a symbol to represent an object/idea. This is the basis of spoken language also. By using sign, the person can grasp the concept that they can influence the world through their actions. Helping a person develop this communicative intent is very important because it forms the basis of the person’s motivation to communicate.

The person should be hearing the spoken word with sign as often as if only the spoken word were used, and yet the advantages above are to be had.

By Maura Bolger Lámh Development Officer 2002, with updates by Mary Cullen 2014