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On-body signing is a technique used to communicate with people with multiple disabilities and vision impairment. The Royal Blind School in Edinburgh developed a form of on-body signing called Canaan Barrie.

Watch an introduction to the on-body signing system presented by Laverne Edmonds, Speech and Language Therapy Assistant at the Royal Blind School.


At the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, a lot of the young people here have what we would call MDVI, which is Multiply Disabilities with Visual Impairment. That can make communication and understanding quite difficult, so we developed Canaan Barrie signing system at the school, to help these young people find expression and make sense of the world around them.

So why do we use Canaan Barrie signing?  Well firstly it brings the signer closer to the young person and in turn helps the young person feel more involved with what is being said to them.  Signing also encourages understanding and that it makes the signer slow down their speech, making it clearer to be understood.  Signing also gives an alternative means of communication.  It helps develop a young person’s natural gesture and in turn helps them communicate better with their world around them.  Signing also encourages and develops spoken language giving more meaning to the individual word.  

What can Canaan Barrie signing do for a young person?  Well it offers better communication between the young person and the signer and also helps the young person express their own communication and help them develop understanding of language in the world around them.  

With the Canaan Barrie system, there are three methods of signing.  The first we call in front of, and like with most signing systems, that is basically the signer standing in front of the individual and signing to them.  Here we demonstrate the word finish.  On body is the method where you make contact, physical contact, with the young person.  So you would either make the sign with your hand on their hand or on their leg or on their arm or on their cheek or wherever the sign is appropriate.  Now we demonstrate the word good morning, in front of, on body.  Hands over is the third method.  This is where the adult or the signer places their hands under the young person’s hands and gently guides the young person into making the sign themselves.  Lastly we demonstrate the word music.  In front of, on body and hands over.

Five tips when signing:

  • Sign only the key words in your sentence.  
  • Observe carefully for any kind of reaction from the young person.  
  • Think about your position in relation to the individual ie come in close.  
  • Slow your speech down and use expression, especially with the key signing words.  
  • Due to the visual impairments of the young people, be sure not to take the child by surprise and always introduce who you are first.

Learn More

Read the The Canaan Barrie Sign Vocabulary - Primer

Watch video demonstrations of the Canaan Barrie on-body signs in the Core Vocabulary.

Last modified: Monday, 9 September 2019, 2:26 PM