Tangible Symbol Systems

Funded by: U.S. Department of Education
(grant # H180E30056) 
Charity Rowland, Ph.D., Principal Investigator
Philip Schweigert, M.Ed., Co-Principal Investigator
Dates: October 1, 1993 - December 31, 1996


Most often, when we think of the use of technology to resolve communication problems, we think of the use of rather sophisticated "high tech" systems for individuals whose impairments are essentially physical ones. In most cases, these systems presuppose the comprehension of an abstract symbol system (e.g. printed words or graphic symbols) or, at the minimum, two-dimensional symbols (i.e. pictures). Teachers and therapists are anxious to embrace the latest in technology and want to be able to solve communication problems through the use of such equipment. Unfortunately, for students who have severe or multiple disabilities, "high tech" systems often don't solve the problem. When the student doesn't learn how to use the system, students, teachers and families all become frustrated and the equipment falls into disuse. In other cases, the teacher realizes that the student does not have the cognitive skills necessary to use typical assistive communication devices and, lacking the knowledge of a suitable alternative, the student is not offered a means of communicating effectively. For many of these students who have multiple disabilities, the problem lies in the fact that they are not able to understand the use of symbols. Comprehension of a symbolic communication system is necessary before most communication devices designed to circumvent physical disabilities will be helpful. Unfortunately, learning to use a symbol system does not come automatically to many individuals, particularly those who have severe intellectual disability or sensory impairments.

Some years ago we conducted initial studies on the use of a "low tech" and conceptually concrete symbol system that we called "Tangible Symbol Systems". Tangible symbols are three- and two-dimensional objects that are used as symbols. For many individuals this system circumvents the intellectual limitations that prevent the comprehension of abstract symbols. For others, it accommodates the vision impairments that preclude the perception of two-dimensional symbols such as pictures. We first used tangible symbols in a small demonstration project for children with deaf-blindness. We later used the system with another small group of individuals with a broader range of severe and multiple disabilities. These limited studies had shown that students who could only communicate through gestures and who had failed to acquire abstract symbol systems such as speech or manual sign language could learn to communicate using tangible symbols. In certain cases, the acquisition of tangible symbol systems served to bridge the gap between gestural communication and more sophisticated communication systems using pictorial or even printed word symbols.

The purpose of this project was to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the benefits of using tangible symbol systems beyond what had been possible to date. The evaluation had three major goals: the first was to evaluate the efficacy of tangible symbols as a communication system for students with severe and multiple disabilities; the second was to evaluate the potential for tangible symbols to serve as a stepping stone to "higher tech" or more conventional communication systems; the third was to evaluate the efficacy of training materials designed to show teachers and speech-language pathologists how to implement tangible symbol systems.

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