U-Va. Student Develops Simpler Sign Language
Karen.Ozmun at METROKC.GOV
Fri May 25 12:19:16 PDT 2001
A World Beyond Words
U-Va. Student Develops Simpler Sign Language
By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 15, 2001; Page B03
Deep in study for finals last week, University of Virginia senior Nikki
Kissane took a break to check her e-mail.
She expected a note from her father. But what she found was startling: a
thank-you from a mother in Soldotna, Alaska; congratulations from an admirer
in Carlsbad, Calif., and praise from strangers in Monroe, Mich. None has
ever met Kissane, but all went on at length, telling her about their
autistic or retarded children and the impact her undergraduate work has had
on their lives.
"I just found your wonderful creation today and I'm so thrilled that I'm
getting goose bumps," gushed the mother of two autistic boys who found
Kissane's research project -- a simplified sign language -- on the Internet
and began using it with her sons. "You have solved a huge problem for us. .
.. . P.S. -- I certainly hope you got an 'A'!!"
Kissane, who is still awaiting her grade, spent 600 hours over 3 1/2 years
developing the communication system for nonspeaking children and adults,
specifically those with physical limitations because of autism or stroke.
With the guidance of psychology professor John Bonvillian, director of
linguistics at U-Va. whose earlier research was the backbone of Kissane's
project, the 21-year-old pre-med student created a lexicon of 500 signs. The
gestures are easy enough for those who are limited physically and
cognitively, yet comprehensive enough to act as a language of sorts, she
Most of the signs are based on simple hand motions -- for example, using one
finger or a fist rather than the more complex hand shapes and motions used
in American Sign Language. Kissane's lexicon also relies on pantomime, such
as a rocking motion for the word baby.
"Any person should be able to get the gist of what's being said . . .
without much hassle," said Kissane, whom Bonvillian credits with doing most
of the work on the project.
While attempts to create a simplified sign language have been made
nationally and internationally, Bonvillian said that this effort benefited
from his research and the work of other U-Va. students who analyzed common
errors made by autistic children learning to sign.
"This should be easier to use," he said, adding that it will take two or
three years, after field tests, to know whether it is a success.
For now, Kissane's work has been posted on a Web site,
www.simplifiedsigns.org, drawing responses from parents and others who say
they have spent years struggling to communicate with their loved ones.
Kissane, a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and
Technology, said she was drawn to the project partly because of her
grandfather, who suffered a debilitating stroke when she was young. Later,
she watched autistic children struggle to hold brushes in an art class
taught by her mother.
Kissane culled through more than 20 sign-language dictionaries provided by
Gallaudet University, selecting 900 mimelike gestures for consideration in
her lexicon. The gestures were tested on a panel of U-Va. students: If more
than 70 percent could recall a sign quickly, it was included. About 120
gestures were modified by Kissane to be more recognizable and easier to
The lexicon is not intended to be a language, as it lacks linguistic and
grammatical structure. Rather, it's a simplified way of communicating with
those for whom American Sign Language is too difficult.
In the fall, Kissane will start classes at the Medical College of Virginia,
leaving the lexicon in the hands of Bonvillian, who hopes to publish the
work in the next year.
At home in Woodbridge before graduation this Sunday, Kissane said she once
yearned to make a difference in someone's life in her career as an
orthopedic surgeon but never imagined she would do so as an undergraduate.
"I knew I was doing something good, and I really liked my project because I
knew it would make a difference," she said, "but I never thought I would see
and feel how much good it's bringing to people. I can feel it in my heart."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
Karen Ozmun, Disability Compliance Specialist
King County Office of Civil Rights Enforcement
400 Yesler Way, Room 260
Seattle, Washington 98104-2683
206-296-7706 Voice, 206-296-7596 TTY
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
More information about the Wash-at