Paths to Literacy

for students who are blind or visually impaired

The Question of Symbol Standardization: An Invitation to Discussion

I have been asked to share my thoughts and experiences on some frequently-posed questions regarding standardization of tactile symbols.  I am hoping that this post will launch some online conversation about the use of both standardized and non-standardized tactile symbols with individuals who have visual and multiple impairments.  As you read this post, please consider and respond to these questions.  

  • Have you used tactile symbols with your students or children?
  • What kind of symbols have you used (Individualized, Standardized, both)?
  • What has your experience been in using tactile symbols (calendars, communication boards, speech generating devices, labeling systems)?
  • Would a standardized system be appropriate for the students you work with now?
  • Would it be feasible to produce standardized symbols in your setting?
  • What has been your experience with the APH or other commercially-produced symbols systems?
  • Do you envision the symbols being used as a long-term communication support for your students?
  • What suggestions do you have for improving the standardized systems?

Introduction to Standard Tactile Symbols

Tactile symbols are representations, often parts of objects, attached to backgrounds, which are used by people who are blind and do not read braille.  For some, they are stepping stones to braille, for others the symbols are alternatives to braille.  Representationally, they are similar to pictures for sighted people.  I was involved in the standardization of a tactile symbol system used at Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and previously wrote an article describing the system and its uses and limitations (Hagood, Since that time, I have witnessed the commercial production of commercially-manufactured standardized systems (APH, STACS system, Adaptive Designs Tangible Symbol Sets).  

TSBVI Standard Tactile Symbols

Tactile symbol for SundayTactile Symbol for support staff

Tactile symbol for outsideTactile symbol for washing dishes


APH Tactile Symbols

APH tactile symbols

Since the TSBVI system was developed in the 1990s, there has been considerable discussion about its use. Most proponents of tangible symbol usage for students with visual and multiple impairments suggest that symbols should be individualized, based on student interest and object use, and that the tangible symbols bear a concrete resemblance to the objects or actions which they represent (Blaha, 2001; Rowland and Schweigert, 2000;  Smith, 2012).

Individualized Symbols (“Tangible Symbols”)

Recycle symbolIndividualized tactile symbol system

Individualized symbol system

I support this perspective on individualizing symbols as a beginning step, and would like to respond to it by describing my personal journey toward accepting  (and even embracing!) standardization of the system used at TSBVI.

The Developmental Model 

In the early 1990s, I worked as a speech language pathologist in the program for students with deafblindness and visual and multiple impairments at Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.  This was a program that had a strong developmental philosophy—we believed in taking our students through a step-by-step process toward becoming symbolic language users before introducing print and braille.   The process of developing symbolic thinking is described here:
  1. Build a meaningful activity with recognizable and consistent objects, e.g. making juice, in which the same pitcher or juicer was used every time.
  2. Begin to use the object within the activity to cue the student just before beginning the activity, and look for responses that suggest understanding (e.g. when presented with the pitcher, the student searches visually or tactually for the cup.  
  3. Present the object from a few feet away, and see if the student still recognizes it out of context (travels to snack table, or searches for basket on counter that contains other objects used in juice routine.
  4. Present the object (pitcher) at the student’s object calendar area, looking to be sure that s/he demonstrates recognition (e.g. “pours” with pitcher, travels to area, or locates basket with associated objects)
  5. Present a set of objects (pitcher, cup, big spoon used for stirring, oranges and knife) and engage the child in a pantomime type “conversation” about the upcoming activity. Watch for signs that s/he recognizes the relationship between the objects presented (e.g. initiates “cutting” with the knife and orange, “pouring” with cup and juice”)
  6. Present a different object from the “discussion box”  described in step 5 at the calendar (e.g. the orange or the cup) at the student’s calendar.  See if he recognizes it as indicated by acting on it appropriately, selecting correct sets of associated objects, or traveling to area.
  7. Use a part of an object glued on a card as a more symbolic tactile representation for the activity (e.g. orange peel, part of a paper cup that is used only in the juice activity).
Another criteria for using symbols was communicative intent.  This included the following:
  • persisting and altering  communicative behaviors. Example:  The student extends foot for help with putting on shoe.  If the adult doesn’t respond immediately, the student vocalizes, searches for the adult and extends foot again.
  • performing communication behaviors in multiple contexts. Example: The student guides adult’s hands or offers objects to request at snack time, on the playground and at bath time.  S/he does this with multiple partners.
  • orienting toward the partner.  Example: the child without vision may vocalize to initiate, and continue, changing orientation in response to adult voice; the child with usable vision orients body toward partner, or extends juice cup to partner (different from banging the cup on the table without orientation to adult).
When students have learned to show communicative intent in these ways, using objects, concrete symbols, and natural signals or gestures, symbols can be added to their repertoire of communicative forms.  

Standardization: Moving from Concrete Tangible Symbols to More Abstract Tactile Symbols

I was hesitant when a group of teachers proposed  standardizing the tactile symbols used in our program.  We had always had a highly individualized approach, as described above.  We wanted to be sure that we were building meaningful connections between symbols and activities, from the child’s perspective.  I was reluctant to modify this approach, but the teachers had some good reasons for wanting more standardization.
One teacher described her situation:
Danny goes home every weekend. Our symbol for going home is a piece of his grandmother’s tablecloth—this card means “weekend” to this student.  Well, his grandmother’s tablecloth has disappeared, and now I don’t have a way to represent the weekend for him any more.  I wish I had made a hundred weekend symbols for him….could he understand if we just gave him a more abstract symbol for the weekend?
Other teachers discussed challenges in terms of representing concepts that were not necessarily tied to specific objects—they wanted to provide concrete representations for more abstract concepts: What can we use to represent “morning,” “afternoon,” emotion vocabulary,  actions, modifiers like fast and slow, loud and quiet?
Other problems I noticed with the individualized symbols included the following:
  • The parts of objects glued on cards didn’t always fit neatly into the experience books we were introducing as a way to talk about the past and the future. The books were so unwieldy that they barely resembled a book at all.
  • The part-of-object symbols supported recognition of the activity as a whole, but not the individual object or action vocabulary I was hoping to model in the activities.  We relied on the object sets in the discussion boxes to expand our calendar conversations about objects.
  • The bulky symbols didn’t fit on communication devices which we were beginning to use with our students. 
  • Our population was changing—the parts of symbol representations were just a starting place for some of our students who had functional language, but lacked reading and writing skills. The new population of students we were serving were those with visual and multiple impairments, including cerebral/cortical visual impairment, optic nerve hypoplasia, and visual impairment and autism or other developmental disabilities. Teachers needed a “next step” for these students. It was a large developmental leap from these individual parts of object symbols to the introduction of print or braille, and we had no “in between” step.  
Given these considerations, I dove into the project of developing this symbol system with the teachers who suggested it.  Thanks to the encouragement and energy of Patty and Garner Vogt and the other teachers who piloted the system, the project was completed over the course of a summer.  We developed a language-based system, in which parts of speech were coded by background shape and texture, gluing the materials to large sheets of posterboard, and cutting the shapes with a die cutter.  
Actions were placed on felt triangle backgrounds, 
standarized symbol for danceStandarized symbol for exercise


 Objects on ovals, 

Standardized symbol for milkStandardized symbol for chocolate milk

Standardized symbol for gameStandardized symbol of keyboard

Places on needlepoint squares, 

Standardized symbol for homeStandardized restaurant symbol

Standardized symbol of taco restaurantStandardized symbol for store

People on bumpy wallpaper circles, 
Standardized symbol for school nurseStandardized symbol for support staff
Emotions on heart shaped backgrounds, 
Standardized symbol for madStandardized symbol for excited
Time Concepts were diamonds with net backgrounds used for days of the week and foil backgrounds for months.  
Standardized symbol for TuesdayStandardized symbol for FebruaryStandardized symbol for morning
We selected vocabulary based on the most common activities we had engaged in with students in the program, and on words which we wanted students to use and understand.   In selecting  items (“doo dads”) to glue on the cards for specific words, our criteria were—to use a part of a real object and make the symbols concrete in that way whenever possible (e.g. a bread tie for the word “bread”), and to use materials which could be easily and inexpensively located and replicated. Sometimes,  the “doo dads” were more abstract, such as the crossed paperclips on a green felt triangle to represent “work”, with a more concrete item paired with it to represent the type of work (e.g. a piece of towel for towel folding job, a coffee bean to represent work in the coffee shop).  A symbol for “music” might be modified by adding a symbol representing a specific song or instrument.  Teachers and other staff were asked to create their own individualized name symbols and to wear them when getting to know students.  The items we chose to glue on the backgrounds were either recyclable objects like milk bottle tops or tabs from soda cans, or they were easy to purchase in discount stores throughout the state. A directory to the symbols currently used at TSBVI is available at  Excellent video discussions of the symbol system by David Wiley and Carol Bittinger  are available on the TSBVI website at
A special room was set up for symbol construction, and the “doo dads” were organized alphabetically in small drawers and baggies.  The background shapes were created in a large scale operation, and Velcro was attached to the back of each one.  Symbol “directories” with examples of the symbols by category were posted on the walls, and a list of standardized symbols was created.  If a teacher needed a specific symbol, s/he could go to the symbol room, reference the list, and use the glue gun to glue the doo dad on the corresponding background shape.  If a new symbol was added to the set, the teacher could create a sample and add it to the list on the wall and the written directory.  The symbol directory was reviewed by committee on regular bases to determine whether there was tactile confusion between newly added symbols. 

The system is sustained…

I left TSBVI and returned after many years.  I was amazed to see that this system had remained in its original form, sustained through the efforts of the staff there, and had grown to be a source of pride for the TSBVI teachers and residential staff.  I saw the symbols used 
  • on calendars,

Calendar with standardized symbolsCalendar using standardized symbols


A beautiful example of a teacher using tactile symbols to converse at a daily calendar is shown here.  Note the organization of the symbols in a book, on a daily strip and a monthly calendar, and the excellent use of hand-under-hand signing and pacing of adult input, with responsiveness to the student’s initiations. 


  • to label locations and items in the environment,

Standardized symbol for workskills roomStandardized symbols for workskills


  • as illustrations in experience stories, 

Standardized symbols in experience stories

  • on sentence strips to expand children's single word utterances, 

Sentence strips using standardized symbols

  • as a way to help break up echolalic language patterns by moving “words” around or replacing them in a memorized phrase (e.g. “ashes ashes we all jump up/ spin around/ fall down” “ Wednesday we go swimming with Todd”  can also be said in a different way:  “Todd swims with us on Wednesday”)
  • to introduce braille, with a set of symbols from different meaning categories in the “c” box or the “c” book (cafeteria, cooking, car, can opener, cat, crazy)
  • to provide a concrete system for asking and answering questions

Questions using standardized symbols

It seemed that the system had become almost a cultural phenomenon, one which the TSBVI staff associated with their communication with students,  and a system which had the right amount of structure to grown and change with the times. The staff there were clearly proud of the system, and it pulled people together to create these “artifacts” – concrete evidence of their commitment to teaching communication skills to their hard-to-teach students.  I was puzzled and impressed.   
As a speech language pathologist who focuses primarily on teaching function over form, I had to re-evaluate my thinking.  This system had helped teachers become more aware of the language they are using and expecting from their students, had helped them organize their vocabulary and given them tangible support for moving students beyond the single word level.  Even more fascinating—it had brought the staff together to create concrete supports for language, and helped some non-language oriented teachers to appreciate the structure of the language we wanted our students to learn.  It had found a new function in supporting language growth for students with CVI and additional disabilities—students who had basic spoken or sign language skills and had difficulty reading either print or braille.  For these students, the system seemed to help organize their spoken language, and the staff began to experiment in modifying background colors and increasing visual contrast.
Conceptually and developmentally this system lies somewhere between the totally individualized concept of Tangible Symbols suggested by Rowland and Schweigert (2000) and the mass-produced systems marketed by APH and Adaptive Designs. The chart below shows the developmental progression of symbol use for students who are visual and tactual learners.

Continuum of Symbol Systems

Individualized System -> Standardized System

            BRAILLE (tactual learners)                 PRINT (visual learners)
 Objects      Objects  
 Alternate objects     Alternate objects
 Parts of objects / Individualized symbols  •    Parts of objects /
 •    Individualized symbols
 •    Clear concrete photos (of calendar  objects, people)
Standard tactile symbols •    Line drawn pictures
•    Tracings of objects
•    Photos (more complex, representing actions, alternate objects, highlighted activities)
 APH Symbols / other commercially produced symbols  Boardmaker pictures / other commercially produced picture systems
 Braille  Print


Concerns About the Use of Standardized Symbols

Now that I have worked in “the real world” of public schools for at least as many years as I spent at TSBVI,  I have a new set of concerns about the ways these and other standardized tactile symbols are being used. 
  • They should only be used with students who demonstrate symbolic capabilities and intentional communication. If they are used with students who are presymbolic and preintentional, the students may quickly reach a plateau of comprehension, using any symbol to request snack, or learning only symbols which are presented frequently in the context of a predictable daily schedule. If this is the case, a more individualized or object-based symbol system is recommended.
  • Teachers in school districts may not have the time or motivation to create and expand systems for just one or two students in a district.  The background shapes and textures take a lot of time to create, initially, although some ambitious TVIs have managed to replicate the system.
  • The symbols are often used only as cues or directions for student actions, not to support conversation or communication. If this is the function for the symbols, it is not necessary to embrace the whole system.
  • Teachers need to recognize that tactile symbols are only one of many forms for supporting communication—objects and touch cues are always available, and all of us use a variety of forms.
  • Some students might be better candidates for Braille or print instruction, and do not need teachers to invest in this labor intensive system for communication.



The most interesting benefit of this system, as I have seen it, is to help adults realize the value of expanding topics (activities) and vocabulary (objects, people, actions, feelings, places) used as contexts for teaching.  In my consultation with teachers of students with multiple disabilities, the first issue that arises is often “What does he have to talk about?”  Tactile symbols, presented in books, on wall displays and calendars, do provide teachers with a tangible reminder to increase the variety of motivating and interesting topics and vocabulary available for communication presented by responsive partners.
Though communicative form is just one component of communication, it is the most obvious one.  The commitment of the staff at TSBVI to sustaining and growing this system is remarkable. The evolving system shows the rare and valuable benefits of having a united approach to supporting alternative forms of communication and literacy. 
Bulletin board covered with standardized symbols


Blaha, R. (2001). Calendars for students with multiple impairments including deafblindness. Austin: TSBVI.
Hagood, L. (1997) A standard tactile symbol system: Graphic language for individuals who are blind and unable to learn Braille. Austin: SeeHear. Retrieved from:
Rowland, C.  and Schweigert, P. (2000)  Tangible Symbol Systems: Making the right to communicate a reality for individuals with severe disabilities.  Retrieved from:
Smith, M. (2012) Symbols and Meaning, Volumes 1 and 2.  APH: Louisville, KY. 

Standardized tactile symbols collage



Some thoughts

Posted by Jay Hiller

Tactile Symbols

Posted by Dr. Sharon Summers


Posted by Dr. Sharon Summers

Tactile Symbols

Posted by Deedra Finch

Each child has a personal

Posted by Deedra Finch

Pictures of TN School for the Blind tangible symbols

Posted by Charlotte Cushman

Tangible symbols

Posted by Deedra Finch

Tactile Symbols

Posted by Kim Conlin

Transferring symbols between places

Posted by Sandy Joint

How I combined objects and tactile signs

Posted by Sandy Joint

Dictionary of Tactile and Augmentative Communication

Posted by Sandy Joint

Have you used tactile symbols

Posted by Anita Lewis


Posted by Anita Lewis

Various comments

Posted by Garner Vogt

Tactile Symbols

Posted by Matt Schultz

Individualised vs. standardised tactile symbols

Posted by Sheela

Photos of Tactile Symbols from Helen Keller Institute, India

Posted by Sheela Sinha


Posted by SHEELA

Reaction to the post above!

Posted by Garner Vogt

Standardized vs. Individualised symbols/ Concrete tangible vs.

Posted by SHEELA

Individualised vs. Standardized object symbols

Posted by SHEELA

Posted on February 16, 2016
Updated on: March 10, 2021

Previous comments for The Question of Symbol Standardization: An Invitation to Discussion

SHEELA commented on February 25, 2016

Sorry, I am here again just to correct one slip in my comment above. "Them" over there refers to the parents and not the children themselves. Parents, in case of children coming from deprived socio economical background are not inclined towards using the highly abstracted symbols at home while interactting with the child, as it is hard for them to understand it's relevance. Whereas if we give them more tangible symbols which relate to their lives they make an effort to help the child use it at home too.

SHEELA commented on February 25, 2016

Thanks Linda for your comments as well as bringing me in this loop! It is quite fascinating to be able to discuss about something which is at the core of your professional life, with people from across the globe.
Yes , those miniatures can only be used in the context. Often it is the texture of the material used there which is identical or at least very similar to the original which it symbolises that helps the children. Personally, I have never been an advocate for mini symbols.

SHEELA commented on February 25, 2016

Thanks Garner for your thoughtful comments. Yes I totally agree that in a group a common point of reference is also required.On the other hand, a variety of topics can also be provided by bringing in different individualised symbols in order to generate more interactive conversation. This aspect is actually taken care of in our system too. An example - the symbol for shopping for all the children in a group could be a shopping bag ( again more tangible than abstract but a common one). However , what each one will buy can be different , giving scope for a lot of conversation.. Whereas one may be carrying a small communication book with packets of different flavoured biscuits and chips to be shown to the shopkeeper, another child may be simply carrying a shampoo bottle and has a conversation about shampoo getting over with his teacher and peers, a third one may be carrying a card with the wrapper of his favourite candy stuck on it. He may be going to buy candies to be distributed on his friend's birthday next day. So still scope for a lot of conversation and language expansion. Manipulating and feeling around each other's symbols will help them tactile discrimination too - an essential requirement for Braille literacy/ tactile picture reading.
The second issue of encouraging graded abstraction in order to help them develop skills to learn Braille - a highly abstract medium of literacy. Well, what we often do is to label the cards or pages in a communication book with tangible symbols in Braille - slightly bigger dots then the actual one ( to start with) made with special stickers. Along with the object symbol he will also be helped in going over those Brailled words just as a sighted child has A for Apple in his first book - the picture of an apple with Apple written below it on his A page. So he is also being exposed to more abstract form of literacy though he is not reading at this stage .
In another way we introduce Braille while continuing with the tangible objet symbols is to label his belongings and familiar objects in his environment in Braille ( with the kind of stickers I mentioned above)
One reason why we cannot afford to go into too much of abstraction is that a large number of children come from an economically/ socio culturally deprived background. It is often very hard for them to understand the relevance of these highly abstracted symbols and be motivated to use them whereas more concrete symbols make sense to them and often with support from us they do use them at home too. Only using them in school hours is not as effective.. So far Braille is concerned, it does not pose this challenge as they all know that this is how people who don't see READ and that is welcomed by everyone.

Linda Hagood commented on February 25, 2016

Great photos--thanks Sheela.  I like the tactile pictures you made for the clothes--for a child with CVI, these would be quite meaningful--a child who is totally blind would probably process these "miniature items" as they do standard tactile symbols--relying heavily on the location context


I like the symbols for choice time in the free play area because they can actually be manipulated by the child.  Part of what we know about an experience is what we do with it--though it helps to mount symbols on cards, in terms of identifying them as a "symbol" (and keeping up with them!), I still like the idea of using real objects in a bag or box--so that we can pantomime actions at calendar.

I really appreciate your input on this post Sheela.

Sheela Sinha commented on February 25, 2016

Here are some photographs of tactile symbols, photographs, tactile pictures and pictures used with our children in various ways - for conversation  about routine, experiences (traveling,shopping, snack preparation, celebrations , etc.), emotions, as well as choice making and expressing needs.

object schedule


tactile symbols in free choice area







Tactile symbols of clothes by closet




Linda Hagood commented on February 23, 2016

Thank you so much Millie!  Your examples are helpful to those of us who have worked with students at the early symbolic/ intentional stage of language development. 

I can really relate to the example of the student who seemed to "plateau" at the level of 3 or 4 arbitrary (standardized) symbols.  When I have seen this occur, it can be for several reasons:

1. The student is at a very concrete level of development, and the abstractness of the symbols is too complex.

2. The student is not clearly an intentional communicator, but has a trained behavior, in which they "do what they usually do" in a familiar routine when the symbol  is presented, or use ANY symbol expressively to request what they want.  (Similar to the child who signs or says "more" for everything, and doesn't necessarily seek a partner to receive the communication).

I also really appreciate what you have said about the utility of standardization in contexts where several students can share the system (not often, beyond schools for the blind and visually impaired). I did like Garner's mention of facilitating group interaction by putting concrete object symbols in giant zip-lock bags, with tactile symbols on the outside (also, pictures could be added)--something for everyone in that situation... 

A couple of questions about your use of object symbols:

How would you evaluate a student's comprehension of object symbols?

How would you represent more abstract concepts such as "days of the week" or emotions for students who are concrete communicators? (I have usually tried to schedule a highlighted activity for different days of the week, and used it to represent the day--do you have other thoughts on this?)

Again, thanks so much for your thoughtful response, Millie.  Your ideas have always been helpful to me in many ways.

Linda Hagood commented on February 23, 2016

The Question of Tactile Symbol Standardization

To use standard symbols, or not to use standard symbols, that is the question. For me the answer is not “yes” or “no” but “maybe.” I support programs for students who are just beginning to use symbols. When making decisions about what kinds of symbols to use, I assess the level of development of each student according to three criteria. Does the learner need idiosyncratic or generic symbols? Does the learner need iconic or arbitrary symbols? Is the learner’s comprehension of symbol meaning dependent on specific, familiar contexts or generalized to multiple and unfamiliar settings?  Using information about performance related to these three variables, I choose the symbols for the learner that he can learn most easily knowing that the most important goal at this stage is to ensure that he likes to communicate.

 The following is a little information about each of the criteria and examples of how they relate to choosing symbols for three individuals.

Idiosyncratic means self –referenced or, as some researchers call it, autobiographical. Generic means representing a whole class of things. Understanding the meaning of a generic symbol requires awareness of things as they relate to not only the self, but to other people as well. Typically developing children learn the meaning of symbols for things in direct relationship with themselves first. Later they realize that other examples of the thing that relates to them also exist related to other people. Jesse’s team chose idiosyncratic symbols for him because he is a young man with deafblindess who has very little information about the world beyond his body. The only shoes in the world are the ones he wears on his own feet. After he is a confident communicator with idiosyncratic symbols, his team will work to help him develop interest in the fact that the people around him are also wearing similar things on their feet. He isn’t there yet. Jesse knows he is being told it is time to get dressed if the symbol in his “now” container is his shoe. Evidence shows that idiosyncratic learners can be taught correct responses to generic symbols after operant conditioning. Jesse’s team used idiosyncratic symbols instead because they knew that he would learn them more easily and use them more confidently. Standardized symbols are not idiosyncratic.

Iconic means like the thing it represents. Arbitrary means unlike the thing it represents. Typically developing children learn the meaning of symbols that are iconic first. Later they learn arbitrary symbols. Addie’s team chose iconic symbols for her because she remembers more of them more accurately. Addie understands it is time to go to the restroom when her teacher presents a card with a piece of pull-up on it. The piece of pull-up is an iconic symbol because it feels like the thing Addie touches during changing. Addie knows it is time for snack when the symbol in her schedule is a straw from the juice pack she uses during snack. Addie used three arbitrary symbols successfully for a while, but became confused when her symbol vocabulary included four or more arbitrary symbols. Her initially successful arbitrary symbols included a raised letter “X” on a card for restroom, a key on a card for bus, and a series of cardboard rectangles to represent a piano keyboard for music. The key was arbitrary because objects are not iconic if they are unrelated to the sensory experience of the learner during an event. Addie does not touch a key when she rides the bus. The music symbol was arbitrary because the series of little cardboard rectangles feel nothing like piano keys. The representation may look vaguely similar to a keyboard, but that does not make the symbol iconic for Addie who is a tactile learner.  Even when they are whole objects, generic symbols in a standardized system are more arbitrary than iconic for idiosyncratic learners. Addie could use very few of them.

Symbols are context dependent when meaningful only in a familiar activity. Generalized symbols maintain meaning across settings. Typically developing children learn the meaning of symbols in specific contexts first. Later, they apply the meaning of symbols flexibly across multiple contexts. Last year, Damien understood that it was time for breakfast when he felt the single serving cereal box in his “now” container. This year, he understands that he needs to put a variety pack of cereal boxes in his shopping cart when he is given the same symbol at the grocery store. Standardized tactile symbols are very helpful when several tactile learners are using them in multiple contexts. Damien is the only tactile learner in his school, so it is not particularly helpful to have standardized tactile symbols in multiple contexts because other students will not be using them.  

I hope this is helpful. 

Linda Hagood commented on February 22, 2016

Thank you, Garner, for responding to the interesting post from India.  This is what I was hoping--that participants would talk with each other, rather than just with me....I hope that Sheela's pictures will trigger responses from some of the rest of you...

Linda Hagood commented on February 22, 2016

I love you and the Asian perspective you bring to this conversation, Sheela!I especially love the story about the boy swimming--the way that he created his own symbol and it was so much more meaningful than the symbols which adults developed for him. It brings this conversation back to where it started--with Jay Hiller's comments on languages evolving based on the needs and perspectives of the users, not their teachers.  

It also reminds me of a student who Garner, Patty and I worked with--an amazing artist, who could draw almost anything, even things he had never really seen, from perspectives that he must have envisioned rather than captured visually.  When he was asked to make communication symbols or experience stories, however, he chose to "write" them with simple stick figures, which his teachers had used to communicate to him.  This was an incredible act of perspective taking on the part of this student, who probably would now be identified as having autism. He was trying to make symbols that even we could understand. 

Linda Hagood commented on February 22, 2016

Thanks for your thoughtful response Matt.  I wanted to reply to a few things you mentioned

1. It is really important to individualize vocabulary for kids and not to allow the system directory to limit the vocabulary or topics for a specific student.  In the modern world of augmentative and alternative communication, the concepts of "core vocabulary" and "fringe vocabulary are used.  I think these terms are somewhat confusing, but the idea (as I understand it) is to always make available some words that are more "generic", like "again", "I", "you", "not" "yes" and "no" on communication overlays--these are termed "core vocabulary", and should be placed in consistent and predictable locations on a student's communication overlay (usually around the outside edges).  The "fringe vocabulary" is the activity- specific vocabulary which the student will need to request, comment or report in a specific activity (for a trip to the park, the words might be "van", "swings" "slide", "hot dog" "water fountain", "drink," "eat" "play" and names of people in the activity). Deedre Finch, a teacher from the Tennessee School for the Blind was using this type of a system with tactile symbols for blind students. I am thinking that maybe these "core vocabulary" items need to be the standardized elements, and everything else needs to be individualized.  Still I like the background textures to build vocabulary across semantic categories--question is--do they actually help students or teachers to build vocabulary--your comments on the utility of the APH symbols suggests that they may be extraneous elements.  Wanna do a research project?!


2. Another comment you bring to mind--the role of families in advocating for and expanding students' communication systems.  It seems there is a certain "brand" of thinker that this kind of system appeals to--the parents who would have loved to teach their kids to read, who enjoy the arts and crafts aspects of making symbols, who help make these symbols into valuable artifacts and advocate for their use.  I would love to hear from some of those families if you can get in touch with them and direct them to responding to this post.  (Really, I'd like to be a fly on the wall during their "symbol-bees"--the symbols bring them together, just like they have brought together some of the staff at TSBVI.)  

I've said too much as always...thanks for making me think about these issues.  

Garner Vogt commented on February 22, 2016

Your exposition was really interesting and I do appreciate the many nuances you interject. I would only say if it make more sense to use an individualized communication model then that is what you should use. As a teacher I was always struck when doing a group activity with learners with a variety of "hard copy " modalities how much the student using tactile systems and pictures would enjoy and attend to the object symbols used by their peers. I found that by having both objects that were individualized to a particular student and also the standardized tactile symbol tended to elicit more comment and discussion within the group conversation. I often would affix the tactile symbol to a bag that would contain a symbol to allow for a common frame of reference for all conversation participants. I do suspect that in situations where you are attempting to use a standardized system as just that to allow diverse users to have a common frame of reference for events, actions, people, not have common symbols would truly limit the use. I also wonder at the notion that a tactile symbol system needs in some way represent the activity in some small way, a spoon part or napikin for eating etc. I am much more inclined to the notion that the system(s) be a continuum of symbol abstraction to an ultimately fully abstract system that much like Braille is a complete abstraction and in the case of a student who was fully conversant in the abstraction of tactile symbols the only reason would would not use Braile would be that there was some underlaying inability to use that medium. I think to use of a variety or materials to support the students comprehension and conversation should always be used as was mention in the anecdote about swimming. I really appreciated learning about the unique opportunities and challenge faced in India and am grateful for the post!

Sheela commented on February 22, 2016

Found the discussion above quite thought provoking. We have always believed that the definition of literacy should be modified to include the use of object symbols also in case of our children. My comments will be more from the perspective of an Asian context. We at Helen Keller Institute for Deaf & Deafblind, India have been using more concrete tactile symbols since quite some time. They are, however, mostly quite individualised made by different teachers keeping their own students' needs and cognitive levels in mind. A few agencies have come up with certain high tech standardised systems in past but they have mainly been used with children with cerebral palsy and not many people working in the field of multiple disabilities with vision impairment (MDVI) know about them.

Linda, I have given a lot of thought to this topic during last few days, since I read this chapter on Path to literacy site and have come to the following conclusion keeping our own context in mind. This includes a couple of other neighbouring countries like Bangla Desh and Sri Lanka also apart from India, where I had the chance to observe and work with this population closely: My Indian colleagues may or may not agree with me.

1. Using Individualised tangible symbols at this moment seem to be a more practical, accessible, feasible and sustainable option for helping our children develop communication and language skills or for having a meaningful conversation not only with teachers in the schools but also with parents and siblings at home. Reasons - - There is such wide disparity between the socio cultural and economic background of children coming to the same program or staying in the same city that the symbol which may be quite relevant for one child may not make any sense to the other. There may be a few like the sponge in the spoon for washing dish (given above) may be relevant in at least 80% of the children coming from an urban area but another like leaves for outside may be totally irrelevant to many even living in the same city as their may not be a single plant in the vicinity to associate outside with leaves, at least in the initial stage. It may be easier for him to associate a key or a piece of chain on the door which his mother uses every time to lock the door before taking him out may make sense to him

Secondly even if we after some research start producing standardised symbols in some parts of the country, their accessibility and availability may remain an issue for a long long time, not just due to lack of financial resources but many other factors like lack of information, transportability, lack of proper guidance for using/making it and so on. Whereas objects like a spoon/bowl or a comb or a sock (for going out), a key or a tooth brush or a bangle to represent the mother or a hair band for older sister can always be found in most of the homes and can be acquired easily in a new place also if they get lost when the student transits from one department/program to another.

So in fact the issue raised in many of the comments given above that if an individualised object symbol gets lost or the object/place it represents has changed then what, works the other way around in this part of the globe. If a standardized symbol gets lost then it may take ages to acquire that again. In fact we find that once a child associates a tangible object symbol with a place or event , it continues to function the same way even if the original object is not used the same way. For instance 6 years old Anwar, a child with deafblindness as well as intellectual issues continued to associate a key with home even when the mother stopped usin it to open the door as the sister's school timing changed and she started being at t home when they reached -

A third issue is that so far vocabulary expansion and language development is concerned, if we bring in too much of abstraction into the picture , as seems to be the case here ( using shapes or textures in the background to represent different class of words/concepts) then apart from a few - in our population at least- who are cognitively at a pretty high level, others may find the whole exercise very difficult and may get demotivated to use them. Some due to slow sensory processes take a long time to comprehend and react. Many, on the other hand have short attention span or due to their proprioceptive and vestibular needs require frequent movement, pressure etc. In such cases using objects involved or their part becomes much more feasible rather than using one after another abstract standardized symbols to describe a process or event like preparing a snack or celebrating a festival,. Using these abstract symbols may be possible in some cases for expressing a few routine needs or for reading the time table but when it comes to more pre literacy experiences like going trough read aloud story books, talking about home or school news, sharing outdoor experiences etc, we have found that a combination of object symbols or their parts, simple and clear pictures or line drawing in case of children who are low vision, have learnt to use their vision fruitfully and may become large printers at some point (even if they don't and remain at picture reading level), tactile pictures or picture with certain touch and feel elements, matt finish photographs - preferably of the actual objects used, place visited or person interacted with. some gestures or signs , vocalisation and intonation patterns, some pre Braille or Pre writing pattern,some movement and actions and whatever works in case of a particular child, gives the best result rather than focusing too much on introducing complex system of a large number of abstract standardised symbols.

Lastly I will like to raise a question that if a child has reached a stage where he can learn such a complex system for conversing about a topic (not just to express routine needs in one one word), then is he not ready and has the cognitive potential to barge on the beautiful journey of read aloud story books looking at/ feeling the meaningful pictures, participating in enacting it or sequencing the events, matching objects with pictures, finding a particular alphabet in a word (large print or Brailled with larger dots/ stickers, Participating in making an experience book after a trip to the garden or a mall with the actual souvenirs brought home from there , labelling the things stuck there in or drawing/ thumb painting pictures of the things experienced , talking about animals and the sounds they make or the food they eat - all using pictures/ tactile pictures/ photographs/ objects and their parts, sticking dots to represent Braille dots and so on.

So is there a need for continuing with those standardised symbols for these narrations he started with! Yes we will surely follow a developmental approach starting with body cues, movements etc. But we would also soon incorporate a few objects he uses, expanding his vocabulary through real objects from the world around rather than standardised symbols, few sounds he hears and even introduce a few signs like finish moving on to picture and tactile elements. All this arises from his own life and the life around so it has to be need based keeping his world in mind and hence will be more individualised .

A few interesting anecdotes- Senju loves swimming. When he was seven years old he refused to use the card for swimming beautifully and very realistically painted by his teacher. He often got frustrated when he could not tell his teacher that he wanted to go for swimming, even though it was not his swimming time and either got angry or started dragging his teacher out of the class room. Even when the teacher initiated him into using the nice picture card showing a boy swimming in the pool, he refused to use it on his own. He was then taken to the pool given a piece of paper and a few crayons. He very interestingly scribbled a few blue lines , drew a stick kind of figure and showed it to his teacher. Since that day Senju never had a problem in communicating when he wanted to go swimming. His stick figure was always with him.

4 years Shubham had just started walking. He would often go to the kitchen and get a bowl when he was hungry and gave it to his mother. The interesting thing was that he managed to pick up a small bowl when he was a little hungry and wanted small snack and bigger plate when he wanted to eat something heavier! Could it happen with a standardised symbol? Have some pictures but am not able to upload. Will try tomorrow. -

Sandy Joint commented on February 22, 2016
You are right: children or adults who are at a concrete/sensorimotor level cannot use abstract symbols, this is the stage of real objects tied with either manual or tactile signs, depending on the level or residual sight the child or adult has. They need a lot of exposure to real objects, experiences with language to develop further.
I retired from teaching about 5 years ago. At that stage I worked for the Education Queensland first as a teacher then later as a project officer and State-wide advisor. My expertise is primarily in Deafblindness.
My main objective is to develop a "Dictionary of Tactile and Augmentative Communication". This I intend to release in parts on a website I am developing  I have also put some of these signs on Pinterest.  This dictionary is based on AUSLAN signs however many of our signs come from the BSL plus NZSL code. Some are even ASL so I am noting this next to words. As I believe in a combined or joint system of communication I have also includes ideas from activities to teach words to real objects to use.
On top of this I do some consultancy work and workshops.
Matt Schultz commented on February 22, 2016

Have you used tactile symbols with your students or children?

I used tactile symbols while working with students aged 10-22 as a classroom teacher and behavior specialist at TSBVI. I am currently a deafblind education consultant with the TSBVI Deafblind Outreach Project. I consult with local school districts across the state of Texas. In my brief time (1.5 yrs) as an outreach consultant, I have worked with just a few teams and students using tactile symbols.

What kind of symbols have you used (Individualized, Standardized, both)?

I mostly used TSBVI's standardized system. However, in doing so I frequently individualized a student's symbol system when appropriate. Instances that come to mind were when a student's preferred topic was not included in the TSBVI Tactile Symbol Directory or when planning an activity that involved a item, action, or location that was not in the directory. In short, we used the directory as a guide and did not let the inventory limit a student's vocabulary or topics.

I'd like to echo the statement from Kim's post about the value of using the APH kit to ease the time and labor commitment involved in making the backgrounds from scratch. I was hesitant at first, concerned about the impact of the missing tactile information resulting from uniform plastic backgrounds. However, I never noticed this hindering a students ability to identify symbols that were used in a consistent and meaningful context, particularly when paired with speech and/or sign language.

What has your experience been in using tactile symbols (calendars, communication boards, speech generating devices, labeling systems)?

I have used tactile symbols within a variety of contexts:

1. Daily calendar systems, depicting activities scheduled to occur across a school day.
2. Weekly or Monthly Calendars, depicting days of the week or month paired with a preferred, highlighted activity that happens on that day.
3. Communication boards designed to support choice making within routines and in making sequence books representing the steps within routines.
4. When creating experience stories to reflect and discuss meaningful events after they occur.
5. To label a student's personal items, classroom items and/or areas.

Would a standardized system be appropriate for the students you work with now?

I believe it can be very helpful when used as a guide.

Would it be feasible to produce standardized symbols in your setting?

I see symbol production as a challenge for many teams that don't have access to a tactile symbol room like the ones at TSBVI. I've heard about groups of itinerant TVIs that have joined forces to get a stockpile of supplies and support each other in symbol production.

Do you envision the symbols being used as a long-term communication support for your students?

That was always my hope. I realize there are many obstacles in place for this to happen. The person overseeing the system much have a great deal or knowledge and understanding to do so. They also need time and resources to produce and repair symbols. I know of a few outstanding families in the Houston area that have made this a reality for their children and siblings with deafblindness, some of whom are now adults. They get together for tactile symbol making parties with food and beverages! Everything is easier when it's fun.

Garner Vogt commented on February 22, 2016

Have you used tactile symbols with your students or children?

I am currently a residential director at TSBVI and don't use tactile symbols directly with students much. I used them extensively as a teacher, teaching assistant and as a residential staff person in the past. I have spent many hours manufacturing symbols and worked very hard to transform the process from an expression of craft to a manufacturing exercise.

What kind of symbols have you used (Individualized, Standardized, both)?
I have used all manner of symbols, individualized object, more standardized object, individualized tactile symbol, standardized tactile, standardized picture(Meyer-Johnson) and picture. I worked at TSBVI prior to there being an individualized system. I have been in classrooms with three of more different tactile symbol systems functioning at once. Having to replace worn-out or damaged symbols became a huge time sink especially when the person who originated the symbol would use some obscure and often impossible to find "doo-dad" as the essential tactile element of the symbol. In many cases because the symbol was kept in circulation too long because the parts were unfindable, the student would cease to cue off of the work tactile element and key off of other aspects of the symbol, like the glue holding it on or the shape, texture and feel of the velcro on the back. Situations such as this made the design and use of a standardize system progressive more urgent.

What has your experience been in using tactile symbols (calendars, communication boards, speech generating devices, labeling systems)?

I have also transitioned students from object symbols to tactile symbols and used a mixed media approach to instruct students in a variety of functional levels and a variety of sensory modalities to share conversations and calendars with each other. Again doing so requires a little bit of effort to create materials and procedures in the activity for all of the participants to access their content. Using tactile symbols to create expanded conversations relating to the who what when where and how of the shared experience of school and using the symbols as a "hard copy" of memorable events always had such a huge impact on my students and seemed to promote a level of engagement about school and experiences with which many of my students really struggled. And of course the basis for these conversations had to be the daily and systematic use of tactile symbols in calendars and daily activities.

Would a standardized system be appropriate for the students you work with now?

There are many students at TSBVI using these symbols. It is essential to maintain a standardized system to prove symbols at the scale needed to support all of these usage and across all of the different environments for these students. This also allows us to provide some degree of support to students when they return to their local school districts.

What suggestions do you have for improving the standardized systems?

I think more training is needed to get the full measure of benefit from these systems.

I am constantly amazed at the effort needed to support these systems and how difficult the current standardized system is viewed by people not from TSBVI(parents or districts) when they are called upon to use and support a student who has learned on our system. When compared with the effort to support students who rely on Braille to meet related needs it is probably not as much but for a variety of reasons maintaining a tactile symbol system often is seen as impossible. To that end I wonder if technology is not a possible solution. At TSBVI a couple of people have discussed the possibility of using 3D printers to design and publish a standardized tactile symbol system that entirely available from a 3D printer. Unfortunately a lot of the discussion about that possibility mirror some of the discussion here. Issues of whether the saliency of a 3D produced symbol is sufficient compared to a glued on element and whether some essential quality of student understanding is lost when the end result can be produced by a machine. From the 3D printers we currently have access to here at TSBVI I don't think we could produce symbols what would provide the level of tactile difference and uniqueness needed, but that will likely change. Another issue will be whether, as some have suggested, the new 3D system will be based on the use of elements of the older hot glued "do-dads" that combines some elements of the objects used in the activities rendered in 3d by the printer or be entirely abstracrted as is Braille but not requiring Braille's level of tactile discrimination and cognition on the part of the user. I support the notion of a system that in it's final form is entirely new and abstract for those users that can not for whatever reason, use Braille but that are conversant tactile symbol users.