Calendar Systems / Tangible Symbols
Tangible Symbols (Challenging Symbols)
Background: Tangible symbols are a common tool in the field of deafblindness. They are 1:1 representations of objects that an individual is familiar with. These symbols are used for communication, anticipation of upcoming events, and integration into contextual systems. Unlike dynamic (disappears once created) spoken words or signs, tangible symbols are static (permanent) pieces of language than can be explored in the hands and have contextual meaning depending on what type of system they are placed into. For example, in one of the calendars shown below on this page, seeing a symbol representing computer in the first box and ball in the second may be taught to mean "we will play with the ball after computer." This spacial concept, if repeated in a routine consistently, is completely accessible through touch, can be observed in the visual field as long as needed, and is not dependent on advanced language, so it may be accessible for some individuals who are pre-linguistic.
When developing tangible symbols, Intervenors often encounter problems choosing symbols that might seem like the obvious choice, such as a spoon for meal time, but do not accurately represent the individual’s experience of the activity (being fed by g-tube). Pictured on the left is one example of a cue that I have made which helps ensure that the consumer will make an association between the symbol and the activity based on their individual experiences.
This photo shows a feeding tube and reservoir (right) which was used by an individual who never took food orally. The symbol (left) is a duplicate piece of the bottle and adaptor tip which connects to the individual's body. This cue represented the individual's experience of meal time much more accurately than using, for example, a spoon as a tangible symbol.
Another example of a challenging concept to represent in a symbol is a large abstract space. An example of this is going to an open area for school recess. It may be possible to use a consistent generic cue, e.g., a unique key chain, or a part of a game they experience only in that area. Over repeated exposure the individual may learn to anticipate the symbol's meaning as going out to the recess area. However, with some thought and a little creativity it may be possible to find a tangible way of communicating even abstract places. Pictured bottom left is the bottom of a water bottle that was cut out and filled with pieces of eraser secured with glue and painted red. This texture and colour were exactly the same as the recycled play surface on the outdoor area.
Tangible Symbol Half Day Calendar
The calendar (left) was built by Dale Zimmerman based on the specifications I drew for her. I then added the high contrast backings to each slot and a textured strip to assist the consumer in finding the first box. The calendar was set up in the morning with tangible symbols I created to represent all of the activities to be completed until lunch. In the afternoon, a new batch of cues were placed in the calendar, ending with a piece of seat belt representing bus.
The calendar was a great place to work on object and photo representation, requesting and rejecting, anticipation, time concepts, language development, choice making and many other valuable concepts.
Planning out a calendar system as pictured below is a good way to visualize your design and think about how functional it is before you starting to put it together. The bottom left image also shows a summary created for supply staff who may need some assistance to know how to set it up.
Two Box Anticipation Calendar - Adapted for Cortical Visual Impairment
This calendar (left), was created by a highly skilled Intervenor. I assisted the Intervenor in modifying the calendar to be accessible for the student who had Cortical Visual Impairment with strong colour preferences (one colour at a time in red or yellow allowed for longer focus) and a need for a simplified visual array.
The simplification of most cues containing primarily one colour (red) on each symbol, the enlargement and simplification of the images, and the change to a black background allowed the student to process the information being presented more effectively. He was observed to open his eyes more frequently at calendar after the changes.
Calendars provide any individual who is deafblind with the ability to communicate and interact by manipulating context. An example of this may be an individual who sees that in the 'now' box of the calendar is sitting a familiar cue for gym, in the 'next' box is a cue representing outside. Due to the structure and creation of context, if the individual took the cue for gym and tossed it into the 'finished' box for completed activities and put the outside cue in the 'now' box, we can be fairly confident of what he has communicated by changing the placements of the cues within this context.
When working with individuals who are medically fragile with severely limited mobility, we often have an individual who is even further from being able to communicate clearly their preferences, frustrations, and comprehension (that the calendar and symbols we have put in place are actually being understood). A calendar for this population may also act as a place where an individual can use very subtle signals and body language to respond to context we have created within the calendar system. For example:
When asked what are we doing now, does the individual look towards the 'now' box?
When an activity is completed and the individual is assisted to put the cue into the finished pocket, do they independently, without prompts, turn their eyes towards the next activity cue in sequence?
When presented with the calendar with the symbols already placed, do their eyes scan across the symbols?
When the symbols for a non-preferred or disliked activity appears, do they protest (possibly arch, turn their head, etc.)?
When a symbol for a preferred activity appears, do they smile (or show happiness in their own way)?
After many repetitions, if you complete an activity and place the cue back in the 'now' box, what does the individual do? Do they have a way to tell you "no?"
This weekly runner was used as an early step in helping an individual form the concept of a week. The runner used large bright images that were carefully photographed to ensure proper lighting and bright colour. Each day was associated with one key activity and we provided the ability to show if that activity was cancelled. If an activity was not going to happen a cancelled sign was placed on that image and a substitute activity was placed on that day as well.
This monthly calendar was created for a student to expand on his ability to anticipate, comment on and play a part in planning future events. The system was used in conjunction with a print and photo based day runner. The two systems together with an activity word wall and a school map, and attendance photo wall served to help facilitate complex American Sign Language conversations about events in the future and past events while reducing stress. The setup here shows the bare bones of the system when it was created. It could quickly fill up with small side notes and special activities, however only the key activity for the day was listed on this calendar, unless there was a special event, to ensure it was manageable to access visually.