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Makaton began as a research project, which aimed to find an effective method of communication between deaf adults who also had learning difficulties in the 1970s. The name stems from the three people who devised it. Margaret Walker, then Senior Speech Therapist at Botleys Park Hospital in Surrey, Kathy Johnston and Tony Cornforth - both at Psychiatric Hospital Visitors from the Royal Association in aid of the Deaf and Dumb. It was first highlighted in the 1960s that there was a need for those who were deaf and with special needs, to communicate. 14 residents at the hospital were selected, and 145 signs and symbols were identified, and were learnt at the speed of 20 every month.
From those small beginnings, it is now an internationally-recognised communication programme used in over 40 countries. Used in schools, colleges, and homes: Makaton is the main programme of communication for those with any type of learning difficulty in the UK.
Makaton is, at its heart, a training programme. The first training course was held in 1976, and to date over 50,000 people from all walks of life have taken the Makaton programme. It's an on-going learning curve, because Makaton is still growing - if a user wanted a word currently not in the Makaton vocabulary they ought to contact them directly (see website listed below).
But Why Don't People Just Use British Sign Language? (BSL)
Unlike BSL, Makaton is not actually a language, but an aid to communication, and where possible, an accompaniment to the spoken word1. BSL on the other hand, is used by those with hearing impairments, and contains its own grammar and so on, and is thus seen as a complete language in its own right. To express it metaphorically, BSL is a Sunday newspaper, whereas Makaton is a necessary supplement which adds to the newspaper as a whole.
Makaton does share some common signs with BSL, being based on it in the UK. There are, however, many differences, so the two should not be confused: BSL or Makaton are recognised by the user, whether with special needs or hearing impairments. A worthy example of this would be a notable performance by Geri Halliwell on Top of the Pops. She was signing 'I'll be your angel now'. Unfortunately (for her) this reads 'I'll be your toilet now' in Makaton. Perhaps not the best sign to share!
What Makes up Makaton?
Makaton is divided into two main parts: 'The Makaton Core Vocabulary' and 'Makaton Resource Vocabulary'. The former are signs and symbols that have been recognised as 'essential concepts for everyday needs'. This was then updated in 1996 to reflect a modern multi-cultural society. The latter was identified in the 1980s as signs and symbols that cover a huge range of additional needs of Makaton users. These include various social, educational and economic topics and currently total over 7000 words and concepts.
Makaton is run by the MVDP (Makaton Vocabulary Development Project) which is a relatively small charity that needs to secure funds. It does this is by copyrighting Makaton and using the funds generated from the copyright to further the Project. It does, however, restrict the use of Makaton pictograms (used to as a teaching aid). It is not possible to place any graphics on this website, or to distribute the pictograms to other people. However, it is allowable to use the graphics around the home or school as a personal learning aid (for example, placing 'toilet' on the toilet door).
The Joy of Sign
Arguably the most enjoyable part of Makaton, is not the history, but learning new words, or being able to completely sign a complete sentence for the first time. This is because Makaton is like learning a different language: you can think outside of what you are trying to say, and now need to learn how to say it.
Due to the special nature of Makaton, though all the signs and symbols are standardised (ie, the same for everyone), in reality each sign can differ due to the individual's ability and motor skills. For one person, it is necessary to expect the exact signing, whereas others who are perhaps less mobile can indicate which sign they wish to use. This fluidity makes it much like regional dialects: a variation from the norm.
How Makaton Is Taught
Makaton has, as mentioned, various levels of complexity due to the different variables of the children themselves2. In schools where Makaton is taught, therefore, all levels must be taught. The very basic level of Makaton are essential words to get the needs of the child across, such as 'Hello', 'Goodbye', 'Drink', 'Biscuit', 'Toilet' etc. This is then built upon with more needs. This is used in conjunction with Makaton symbols for the more physically disabled. Instead of signing what they want, many children will indicate what they want with a gesture from their limbs or eyes.
Once this has been mastered, Makaton is used more constantly in daily life. In schools, Makaton is used as a parallel to speech in every aspect from physical to religious education. This should be backed up by Makaton signs and symbols in the home so that learning it becomes easier. The highest level of learning is when the connecting words such as 'the', 'and', 'when', 'why' etc are used. This can also be used as a verbal language for those who cannot speak3.
Though it is suggested here, there is no set levels of achievement for the children in Makaton, and a child for an aptitude for a particular subject may be further advanced than in another, just like in a mainstream school.
How to Learn Makaton
Learning Makaton takes place through training workshops, in which the basic knowledge of Makaton is laid down and learnt4. This knowledge is then built upon and extended with the Makaton Tutor courses. After completing this course, the candidate becomes an approved Makaton Tutor and can thus teach Makaton to others. Further details about Makaton workshops and courses can be found here.