To communicate effectively, everyone needs both to have the ability to share thoughts with others and be able to understand what other people are trying to communicate. If your child is visually impaired and has additional disabilities, sign language may be one tool she can use to convey her thoughts to others. Learning a few basic signs such as “more,” “help,” “play,” and “drink” that she can use to make her desires known may help her realize she can let others know what she wants in ways other than crying, reaching, or another form of nonverbal communication.

What Is Sign Language?

Broadly, sign language is a language that uses signs made with the hands (manual signs) as well as other movements and gestures for communication. (American Sign Language, ASL, used by people who are deaf or hard of hearing, is an example of sign language.) The signs used have their own meaning and grammar, rather than corresponding one to one with English or another spoken language, but there are also sign systems that use manual signs to replicate English.

If your child has very limited vision or is blind, she will not be able to see you or others signing to her. She may need for you to sign in her hand so that she can feel the sign. Together with other members of the educational team, consideration will need to be given to how signs should be presented to your child. Consultation from a teacher of students with hearing impairments may be useful.

Unless your child has a significant hearing impairment that prevents her from hearing speech, you may want to use signs as a tool to help her learn to use speech, rather than as her permanent form of communication. The following suggestions for incorporating some signs into your child’s communication will be useful for a child who has hearing within the normal range but who is not expressing herself using speech or is expressing herself with limited speech:

  • With other members of your child’s educational team, decide which signs you would like your child to learn. A speech-language therapist or communication specialist on the team will often have knowledge in this area that can be applied to the decision.
  • With others on the educational team, pick one sign to begin teaching your child. This should be a sign that your child will be motivated to use and can use throughout the day, such as “more.” She can sign “more” to get more food, more time playing a game with you, or more music to listen to on her CD player. To help you remember what the sign looks like, ask to have a drawing or picture showing you the sign.
  • Always pair a sign with speech so that you are modeling both for your child. When she sees you using the sign and hears your speech, she is getting both visual and auditory information. If your child has limited or no vision, hearing your voice is very important.
  • Watch your child to see if she develops her own signs, referred to as “home signs,” that she uses consistently. For example, if your child touches her chin each time her grandfather walks into the room, this is her own sign she has developed that means “Grandpa.” If she does, let others who interact with your child know what this sign means, for example, by taking a picture of your child using the sign and writing a description to go with the picture. You could put together a simple book containing pictures of the signs she uses and their meanings that she can take with her between home and school and into the community.

As your child becomes more effective in communicating using sign language, you may find that her use of speech increases and she may be less frustrated at not being able to share her thoughts with others. Her social skills may also expand as she learns to express herself appropriately and respond to the communication of others.