A common (sign) language for all?


A common (sign) language for all?

By Dawn Wylie

The introduction of the Equality Act in 2010 meant that we are legally obliged to ensure no-one is discriminated against due to one of the nine protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act (the protected characteristics being: Age, Disability, Gender reassignment, Pregnancy and maternity, Race/ethnicity, Religion or belief, Sex/Gender, Sexual orientation and Marriage and civil partnership).

At PBA, now part of Stantec, I am part of a team who writes Equality Impact Assessments (EqIA) and undertake peer reviews to ensure our designs and schemes are considerate of all the protected characteristics and are Equality Act compliant.

Signage and Wayfinding is a particularly interesting area within this field. How do we design a strategy that is consistent and that can be understood by everyone, including people with or without disabilities, people who can’t speak English, people who have cognitive impairments and people who have visual impairments and can’t make out small text? If only there were a universal language which could be understood by all!

Well, it strikes me that such a language already exists, and it’s called Makaton, a language developed in the 1970s by Margaret Walker, Katharine Johnston and Tony Comforth (‘Makaton’ being the first two letters of each of the developer’s names). Makaton is a multi-modal language made up of a combination of speech, signs and symbols. It was first developed in the 1970s and is used predominantly with people who have cognitive impairments, autism, Down syndrome, specific language impairment, multisensory impairment and acquired neurological disorders that have affected the ability to communicate, including stroke patients. It is also sometimes used by those living with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The great thing about Makaton is its simplicity; the meanings of the pictographic symbols which form part of the language are usually (but not always!) fairly obvious to all, irrespective of your knowledge of Makaton. Over 40 countries have now adapted and use Makaton. It is even frequently taught alongside regular speech to young children (parents of young children - think ‘Mr Tumble’ and ‘Singing Hands’) to ensure inclusivity for all.

Motorists are very aware of standard road signs, or ‘Traffic Signs, Regulations and General Directions’ (TSRGD) as it is known to us Transport Planners. My view is that we should have similar consistency in wayfinding strategies for those walking (or cycling) through and within the places we design, to ensure we are considering as many people with protected characteristics as possible.

I believe that the easily-understood pictorial symbols which form part of the Makaton language are part of the answer - using a language already in existence which can be easily understood by those without and with cognitive impairments, people who cannot speak English, and even very young children.

Dawn Wylie

Dawn Wylie

Senior Associate – Transport

  • Bristol
  • 01173 327847