Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

The Selection of Tangible Symbols by Educators of Students with Visual Impairments and Additional Disabilities

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

The Selection of Tangible Symbols by Educators of Students with Visual Impairments and Additional Disabilities

Article excerpt

Tangible symbols are objects or partial objects that can be physically manipulated and that share a perceptual relationship with what they represent, known as the referent (Trief, 2007; Westling & Fox, 2009). They make fewer demands on memory and representational ability, making them an appropriate expressive form of communication for individuals with visual impairments and additional disabilities who communicate at the presymbolic level (Rowland & Schweigert, 2000). Although other communication forms, such as sign language, braille, and line drawings, have been standardized, little has been done to establish a standardized set of tangible symbols (Trief, Bruce, Cascella, & Ivy, 2009).

Tangible symbols may be individualized or standardized. Individualized tangible symbols represent an experience of an object, person, or activity that is highly idiosyncratic to one child. Standardized tangible symbols often represent a dominant feature of an object, person, or activity that could be recognized by many children. It is possible to use the same tangible symbol for multiple children if they interact with the referent in the same way (Downing, 2005), making standardized symbol systems particularly relevant for experiences that are similar to a number of individuals.

This article discusses the tangible symbols that special education teachers, paraprofessionals, and speech-language therapists (collectively referred to as educators) selected (from a standardized set of commercially produced symbols), the characteristics of the symbols that were selected, and implications for the development of a starter kit of standardized tangible symbols for use in schools. The selection of tangible symbols by educators is important to investigate because it highlights the topics that educators regard as important to the classroom context, giving insights into the kinds of communications that are expected from children at different ages.



The participants were 29 educators in four urban public schools in one large city on the East Coast that serve children who are visually impaired (that is, those who are blind or have low vision) aged 3-21. At the four schools, parental permission and approval from the institutional review board at Hunter College was obtained for 51 children to participate in a larger field-based study in which tangible object symbols were introduced over a seven-month period. The educators in this study were the persons who were directly responsible for communication-based programming for the 51 children, including the selection of which symbols to introduce throughout the school year. These children had both intellectual disabilities (severe and profound) and visual impairments with normal or aided hearing that allowed them to access auditory information for learning. They communicated at the preintentional to early symbolic level (that is, five or fewer words, signs, or pictures).


The participants were given a commercially produced standardized set of 48 tangible symbols, manufactured by the Adaptive Design Association in New York City. These 48 whole-and partial-object symbols were developed on the basis of data from a survey of 29 special education teachers and speech-language therapists, coupled with input from a focus group of 14 advisory board members (school directors, speech-language therapists, the designer and manufacturer of the symbols, a representative of the Perkins School for the Blind, 3 college professors, and a graduate research assistant) (Trief et al., 2009). These commercially produced tangible symbols were designed to be representations for commonly occurring words in school vocabularies. In addition, this team of professionals assigned each tangible symbol to one or more of the following categories: transition (T), location (L), choice making (Ch), and conceptual skills (C). It is critical to note that these standardized symbols were not intended to replace existing individualized symbols but, rather, to augment individualized symbols that were already in use or would be needed in the future. …

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