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Japanese fire extinguisher with three kanji characters
Do you understand the symbols on this wall?

Using symbols to communicate

To communicate successfully requires a combination of physical, sensory and cognitive abilities. Not everyone has the ability to speak clearly, communicate needs and wants or understand others from birth and some may lose this ability during their lifetime.

Up to one in seven people in Europe may have speech, language and literacy difficulties at some time in their lives.


In the photograph above, do you understand what the symbols are trying to communicate?


There are times when it can be helpful to use symbols for communication. These are often made up of simple pictograms, outline drawings or icons that represent objects, parts of speech, actions and many aspects of daily living, education and the workplace.

Well known symbols can also help us all when coping with a language we do not understand. Take the image above - there are three symbols that tell us what is behind the door. If you cannot read Japanese you may have to guess what is there.

Using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) systems

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) systems offer users the chance to communicate with the use of symbols or pictures as a way to express needs and wants along with emotions and self-determination.

The symbols or pictures may be used in an exchange of cards or by simply pointing at a symbol. However, it can be hard to send a message with all the correct grammar, for example, “The boys are planning a secret party and will buy a present for their best friend.” symbols representing planning a party message (with thanks to Tawasol symbols (CC-by-4.0-SA)

You learnt how Tom used his communication aid throughout the day and was able to socialise but found it hard to communicate at the rate of spoken language. Research has shown that the average communication aid user communicates at 12 words per minute (Range 4.1 - 22.0 wpm) whilst those using spoken language in English tend to average 150 wpm.

Word and symbol prediction systems and the storage of commonly used phrases can speed input as has been shown by Professor Stephen Hawking’s inspiring words at the Paralympics 2012 opening ceremony.

When communicating on the web, electronic aids including tablets with appropriate software can be used and many have email and browser programs. These programs can allow for symbol to symbol transmission or symbol to text conversion so that those using the devices can work in their preferred mode, but there are no standardised pictorial systems used by all and conversions are done on a word by word basis. So just as happens when we communicate with someone who speaks a different language some confusion may occur.

By the way have you worked out what the symbols on the first image said? Sadly they did not tell us how to open the door! The symbols were kanji characters for ‘extinguish’, ‘fire’, ‘container’!

Have you ever experienced a sense of being disabled because you cannot understand a language or become aware that you are trying to communicate ideas that are totally alien to someone else’s culture or environment?

What about symbol sets that have been designed for one culture and do not suit another? Here is a video that might prompt more discussion on this subject Tawasol symbol video


© This work is created by the University of Southampton and licensed under CC-BY 4.0 International Licence SA. Erasmus + MOOCs for Accessibility Partnership.

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This article is from the free online course:

Digital Accessibility: Enabling Participation in the Information Society

University of Southampton

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