Touching Lives - December 2004
Have you heard of Blissymbolics? Chances are that you haven’t, but you’ve probably heard of Esperanto. Esperanto was developed in the late 19th Century in the belief that a universal language, commonly spoken and understood by all, would break down barriers between peoples and lead to mutual understanding and cooperation in a war-torn and divided world.
In the same noble tradition, Charles Bliss — an Austrian Jew who survived a concentration camp and fled the Nazi occupation of his homeland — had the idea to make a 20th Century universal language based on symbols. It would be easy to learn, and could become an international second language helping to forge peace between nations in the aftermath of WWII.
Logical writing for an illogical world
Charles Bliss and his wife escaped Nazi-occupied Europe by different routes, and it was three years before they were re-united in exile in Shanghai. Whilst living in China, Bliss discovered that newspapers could be read by everyone living in that vast country — no matter what their native language. He became entranced by the symbols of written Chinese and made it his life’s work to develop a universal pictorial system of writing.
He spent two post-war decades in Australia developing and refining his new language. But frustration grew as, despite thousands of approaches to universities and academic institutions, no-one was interested in using Blissymbolics. But, unbeknown to Bliss, in Canada in 1971 a teacher working with severely disabled children stumbled across one of his books — ‘Semantography, or logical writing for an illogical world’ — and saw the potential the language might have for children with disabilities so severe they could not communicate at all.
The Toronto-based project had some considerable success — enough for Nigel Ring, Technical Director at the Chailey Heritage school for disabled children in Sussex, to visit Toronto to see the system in use. “I was impressed,” Ring later told the press. “^The children were to all intents and purposes the same as I was dealing with at Chailey Heritage but figuratively speaking they were ‘alive’^. The only difference was that the children in Toronto had these symbols and could communicate.”
Bringing BLISS to the UK
In 1975 Action Medical Research awarded a grant of £9,113 to Chailey Heritage to develop Blissymbolics in the UK. Specialist Speech and Language Therapist Valerie Moffat was a part of that original research team, and still works at Chailey Heritage today. “It was a highly logical system,” Valerie explains. “For instance a heart shape with an arrow pointing up means ‘happy’, but with the arrow pointing down means ‘sad’. The top of a building — a roof — is the symbol for ‘protection’. That symbol also appears in the Blissymbolic for ‘mother’ and also, when added to ‘cloth’ makes ‘clothes’.
“The child points to the symbols and learns to combine them to construct sentences. To point out symbols they use their limbs if they can, or a stick, or they use ‘eye pointing’ whereby the child looks at the symbol and the teacher identifies where the speaker is looking by trial and error.”
The impact at the time was immediate and significant, Valerie tells Touching Lives. “I remember a lad called Mark being a particular breakthrough case,” she recalls. “His was not a cognitive impairment — he was severely physically disabled. But ^suddenly, using Blissymbolics, he was able to say all sorts of things!^ He could communicate with the other children by leaning over and pointing to their boards. It transformed his life!
Opening doors on the world
“Another girl’s use of Blissymbolics encouraged her to speak for the first time. The language skills she learnt stimulated her brain enough to develop speech! And one of our boys progressed to university. He was extremely proficient in Blissymbolics, and then moved on and learnt to read using an alphabet board. Blissymbolics are an extremely useful stepping stone in the learning process for such disabled children. They learn to communicate, and with that they garner social communication skills en route to using more complex language.”
Blissymbolics are still used today by 3,000 physically disabled children and adults across the UK. Further grants from the Charity — £20,000 in 1977 and £5,412 in 1979 — helped establish a resource centre, which secured a future for the language.
Valerie feels proud of the role she played on the project. “We carried Blissymbolics forward in the UK, and its development was instrumental to the variety of symbol systems there are now.” Visiting Chailey before his death in 1985, ^Charles Bliss was delighted to see his brainchild finally put to good use, even if not in the way he had originally intended^.
His was a great legacy to leave disabled children across the world. Action Medical Research is proud too of its close association with Blissymbolics — the language which threw open the doors of communication for thousands of children who would otherwise have been trapped in their own worlds.