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The Compass Centre

Ros Herman and colleagues discuss a specialist sign language assessment resource for clients, families and professionals

The Sign Language Assessment Clinic within the Compass Centre for Clinical Education at London’s City University began in 2002. The clinic – run by SLTs with skills in using and assessing sign language, supported by a sign linguist, deaf researchers and a developmental psychologist – offers specialist assessments for clients who communicate in sign. This includes deaf children and adults who are British Sign Language (BSL) users and hearing clients using sign as an alternative or augmentative communication mode.

Over the past three years, we have seen deaf adults with aphasia, deaf babies and children where decisions are needed about educational provision, and deaf children with unusual language patterns in sign. We have also seen hearing children with learning difficulties and Llandau-Kleffner syndrome.

One of the achievements of City University’s Deaf Studies Research Group is the development of standardised assessment tools for deaf children. The BSL Receptive Skills Test (BSLRST) (Herman et al, 1999) is a video-based assessment of morphosyntax in BSL. The BSL Production Test (Herman et al, 2004) uses an elicited narrative to assess narrative skills and BSL grammar.

Another focus of assessment is motor skills for signing and sign intelligibility using a protocol developed by Grove (1990) based on Dunn (1982). Additionally, we use informal, but structured observation of clients communicating in different contexts with a range of conversational partners and performing tasks selected to probe their language skills. The assessment team considers and plans each referral individually. Following assessment we provide detailed reports for the referring agencies and the families concerned.

Case studies James, aged 6, lost the use of voice and speech following accidental ingestion of a toxic substance. Comprehension of spoken

English was above average for his age and his introduction to BSL signs enabled him to communicate effectively and immediately. He attended a mainstream school with 1:1 support and had access to a voice output communication aid.

The assessment sought to explore his range of signing skills, to determine whether BSL or Sign Supported English (SSE, ie keyword signing accompanying spoken English) would be the most suitable approach.

An unstandardised assessment of BSL receptive vocabulary showed his sign vocabulary to be two years in advance of his age, indicating how quickly he had picked up the lexicon. On the BSLRST, his comprehension of BSL grammar was limited, which was not surprising in view of his limited input in sign, his exposure being in the form of SSE.

Expressively, James linked signs fluently to describe pictures, but he was less skilled in conveying narrative, probably because this was an unfamiliar task. He was beginning to use fingerspelling and developing good literacy and phonic skills. We also considered his range of facial movements, particularly in relation to communicating meaning and movements for sound cues. James’s lip mobility was considerably reduced.

Recommendations for James were: he should continue with SSE in the mainstream setting; fellow pupils should learn sign and fingerspelling; consideration should be given to finding a peer group of sign language users, as he is likely to be a long-term alternative communication user.

Thomas, aged 8, had learning difficulties, severe oral dyspraxia and visual perceptual problems. He attended a special school and received input in Makaton. Thomas’s referral aimed to determine his language development needs and his assessment used a number of informal activities: observation of naturalistic conversation in different settings;

naming people, objects and actions; producing noun and verb modifications; using pictures; locating objects using a barrier task; and producing a narrative based on a video.

Our results showed Thomas had manual as well as oral dyspraxia, revealed in his difficulties in forming distinctive handshapes, orientations of signs and hand use. However, he was able to signal contrasts effectively in location and basic movement, eg to distinguish up/down, left/right and spatial locations.

Recommendations for therapy included modelling signs to him, functional object use to develop handshape, (eg holding a cup, then removing it to allow him to retain the handshape) and avoidance of hand shaping and any meaningless imitation that might lead to echolalia and reduced motivation to communicate. We also recommended providing him with stimulating experiences to engage him to tell others about things that move, change, and excite feeling – stressing the importance of using his whole body and face, as well as his hands.

Jane’s employers initiated her referral. They were concerned about communication problems at work, particularly her failure to follow instructions, despite the use of a BSL interpreter.

Jane was born with normal hearing, but became deaf at age one after meningitis. A university audiology department diagnosed Jane with ‘auditory aphasia’ in childhood. The degree of Jane’s deafness was unclear. Jane commented she could hear many sounds, but never speech. During the session we observed that she reacted to the sound of a door closing.

Jane had learnt BSL at the age of 12 from other children at school. This was her preferred method of communication with her deaf husband and friends. With hearing people, and at work, she used writing.

bulletin April 2006


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