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Sign language

Sign language is a visual way of communicating using hand gestures, facial expressions and body language.

Visual communication methods have been around for thousands of years and nowadays there are hundreds of different types of sign languages in use across the world.

Carer's tip from Netbuddy

"My top tip is Makaton sign language! We are so glad we taught Zoe to use Makaton. Although she can't yet say any words, signing relieves any frustration no end – she can tell us what she wants, and the signs we use help her understand what we say. It takes a while, but it's really worth sticking with."


Visit Netbuddy to read more carers' tips

British Sign Language

British Sign Language (BSL) is the sign language used by deaf people in the UK. BSL makes use of hand gestures, finger spelling, lip patterns and facial expressions. It has its own grammar that is not based upon spoken English and even has regional dialects or variations of signs depending upon the area of the country you are in. BSL is constantly evolving in the same way that spoken English changes as new words enter the language. 

BSL was officially recognised as a language by the British government in March 2003 and there are up to 70,000 deaf people in the UK who use BSL as their first or preferred language.

Sign Supported English

Sign Supported English (SSE) is a method of communication that uses BSL signs but the structure and grammar is based on the spoken English language. This means the signs follow the exact order in which they would have been spoken. This variation of BSL doesn't require any knowledge of BSL grammar structure, so it is easier for hearing people to learn. It is often used in schools where deaf children are taught alongside hearing children.

Tactile signing

There are an estimated 23,000 people in the UK who are deafblind (both visually and hearing impaired). Depending on the level of their hearing and visual impairment, they may be able to hear speech, lipread, or use BSL or braille. Some deafblind people prefer to use tactile signing, such as the deafblind manual alphabet and Block, where words are spelt out on the individual's hand. 

The charity Sense provides more information about the different methods of communicating with deafblind people.


Makaton is a language used by adults and children with learning disabilities and communication problems. It uses a combination of picture symbols and hand gestures that are similar to BSL and speech. 

The aim of Makaton is to help people communicate through speech, so when the user is able to say the correct words they are then encouraged to speak rather than sign.

Find out more on the Makaton Charity website.

Getting in touch with Carers Direct

If you are deaf, deafblind, hard of hearing or have impaired speech, you can contact the Carers Direct helpline using textphone or minicom.


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Page last reviewed: 19/08/2013

Next review due: 19/08/2015

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