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Canaan Barrie ‘on body’ signs are part of a wider communication approach which is described fully in the book Learning Together (formerly Movement, Gesture and Sign) by Mary Lee and Lindi MacWilliam and published by RNIB in 2008.

Learning Together

‘Learning together’ is an interactive and person centred approach to communication for children and adults with complex support needs. The approach has been successfully used in a variety of settings including people with visual impairment, hearing impairment, physical difficulties, autism, and/or additional learning needs.

The starting point for this approach is always the movement, vocalisation or gesture of the person with complex support needs. Their partner will respond to and develop their initiative into two-way communicative exchanges. For a young person with visual impairment, knowing that one’s gestures are seen and understood, is a vital stage in the development of symbolic understanding and the use of learned signs.

In developing the approach, one of the main factors was to make signing, which is a visual means of communication, meaningful and relevant to children with severe visual impairment. There was obviously a need for a sign vocabulary created with their specific needs in mind, and which would provide a multi-sensory approach by making full use of children’s unimpaired sensory channels, notably touch and hearing.

Signs from British Sign Language vocabulary have been used as a base, but where necessary these have been adapted to give maximum auditory and tactile feedback. It has become evident that one of the most important features of a successful sign is that it should have a reference point on the body. Signs made out in space are too difficult, so they have been brought back onto the body, adding sound and rhythm. In some cases signs may be made away from the body, but involve hand movements creating currents of air, which can be detected by the child.

Another important feature of the adapted signs is that they are simpler. A child who is totally blind will have particular difficulties with more complex signs. His body image may not be well developed and, without a visual or tactile reference, he will find it difficult to judge direction and distance. His motor skills are also likely to be poorly developed making the finer points of a sign more difficult, for example, separating fingers or the orientation of his hands.

The Canaan Barrie vocabulary consists of 150 adapted signs (see section entitled “The Canaan Barrie signs” on page 108). There is a core vocabulary of about 50 words based on the children’s everyday needs and activities. Rather than selecting a few target signs to “teach”, it is important to use all or most of the signs in the core vocabulary. This has the effect of creating a signing environment which provides the children with a realistic language model and which encourages them to use the signs. It also gives them the opportunity to select those signs that interest them, rather than having signs chosen for them. Lee M. and McWilliam L. (2008) Learning together RNIB London

The Movement, Gesture and Sign approach is now used in countries all over the world and teachers from across the UK come to the Royal Blind to learn how the Canaan Barrie method can transform the lives of children with complex needs. The pdf of the full text of Learning Together plus materials such as observation/assessment forms and individual sign illustrations, can be downloaded from the Scottish Sensory Centre Library website.

Learn More

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

Last modified: Monday, 9 September 2019, 2:24 PM