LÁMH: Some questions and answers

by Maura Bolger, Lámh Development Office

What is Lámh?

Lámh is a sign system designed for people with intellectual disabilities and communication needs in Ireland. It involves the simultaneous use of sign with speech. It is used to augment or extend speech/language/general communication or to become a primary method of communication if speech does not develop. It is introduced if deemed appropriate, following assessment, and can be used in association with other modes of communication. The positive effects of signing may include improved eye contact, attention, sociability, and behaviour in addition to speech and understanding of communication and increased communication attempts. Both research (e.g. Launonen 1996) and experience show that the use of signs does not hinder the development of speech. As one parent says: ‘I can state from experience that Lámh does not hinder the development of language.’

How has Lámh developed?

Lámh was originally developed in the early 1980s in order to have a unified standardised Irish based approach to signing for those with intellectual disabilities and communication needs. Before that, various systems had been used in organisations and confusion understandably arose. Lámh was incorporated as a non-profit making company with a board of directors in 1999. (It has also received charitable status from the Revenue Commissioners.) In 2001 the Department of Health and Children allocated funding to the organisation for the establishment of the Lámh Development Office and Officer.

Where is Lámh used?

Lámh is now used by many people with intellectual disabilities and communication needs in education, training and work settings throughout Ireland. The vision is that when staff and children and adults who use Lámh move from one service to another it will be available as a standard means of communication.

How is Lámh different from Irish Sign Language?

Irish Sign Language (ISL) is a natural sign language and is used by the deaf community in Ireland. Lámh signs are based on ISL, although there are some differences:

  • Some signs are adapted to be more representative of the actions or objects for which they stand.
  • Simple hand shapes are chosen where possible, rather than the more difficult finger-spelling of ISL.
  • Natural gesture is incorporated as much as possible.

In Lámh, finger spelling is uncommon and the emphasis in the training provided is different. It involves learning the signs, but also how to teach them to children/adults with intellectual disabilities and communication needs so that they will be used for communication. Lámh aims to maintain connections with ISL. This close link allows for progression onto more complex ways of communicating by people if needed.

Why use signs/Lámh?

The reasons why the use of signs/Lámh can be beneficial are given here, under the headings of communication, physical attributes and development, though there is some overlap between them.

Benefits of signing relating to communication

  • People generally do not communicate by spoken words alone. People communicate through facial expressions, body language, gestures, etc. Therefore the more formal use of signs is not so unusual/different.
  • Without signing, many children and adults with intellectual disability and communication needs can understand much more than they can express verbally. Frustrations—both on the these people, resulting from their inability to express themselves, and on their carers to try to understand them—can be reduced by providing them with a way of communicating when s/he does not have the oral motor coordination necessary to say a word.
  • When a person uses sign alone, or along with attempts at speech, the listener can have a better chance of understanding the message and thus the person is successful at communicating. If when attempting to communicate no one ever understands, it is likely that you will give up. When you are understood you are delighted to realise you have been successful and are more likely to keep on trying. Thus there is a heightened willingness to try new words and say more.
  • When carers use sign it can help to slow their rate of speech. Many adults speak fast and that can have a negative effect on a person’s ability to understand and imitate. Slowing a little gives the person more time to understand and imitate.
Benefits of physical attributes of signs
  • The ability to make signs comes earlier for many children than saying the corresponding word, e.g. waving bye-bye, pushing items away or shaking head for ‘no’, raising arms to be lifted up.
  • Speech involves the complex coordination of muscles. People with Down Syndrome are more likely to have difficulty making speech sounds because they often have low muscle tone in and around the face, an oral cavity that is relatively small in relation to tongue size, over- or under-sensitivities to touch in and around the mouth and hearing impairments. However they often have relative strengths in motor development and visual perception. As a result, it is often easier for them to recognise and make gestures with their hands that it is for them to make speech sounds at first. The same is true for many other people who use Lámh.
  • Carers can help a child to make signs more easily with hand-over-hand assistance. This is not possible with speech.
  • The use of signing encourages eye contact and attention to movements, needed for speech development.
  • A high percentage of children with Down Syndrome present with hearing loss. Some others with intellectual disability and communication needs have varying levels of hearing loss. They will benefit by seeing what someone is saying when they are having problems hearing it.
  • Spoken language occurs very quickly. One can often ‘hold’ at least part of a sign in place so that a person who needs extra time can inspect and re-inspect the signal.
Developmental benefits of signing
  • Language is learned in the give and take of conversations. Signing can provide a means of taking part in these conversational exchanges and a person can progress into the arena of learning language, reinforcing basic language concepts and participating in the goings on of others even though s/he is not yet ready to use speech. Using sign assists people to use language and develop vocabulary despite the speech production struggle. They have a means to try out and practice how language works, rather than postponing it until s/he can master the skills necessary for speaking.
  • The use of sign by those with little or no speech/expressive language is important as it represents the use of symbolic communication, i.e. the use of a symbol to represent an object/idea. This is the basis of spoken language also.
  • By using sign the person can grasp the concept that s/he can influence the world through his/her actions. Helping a person develop this communicative intent is very important because it forms the basis of the person’s motivation to communicate.
  • The person should be hearing the spoken word with sign as often as if only the spoken word were used and yet the advantages above are to be had.
How do you train to use Lámh?

Formal training in Lámh is provided by specially trained tutors and is open to both families and staff. Training programmes are conducted on a group basis, using a problem-solving approach. There are over 100 trained Lámh tutors around the country.

What is the Basic Staff Course?

The basic staff course is run by the trained Lámh tutors who are working in many locations around the country in their own various positions, e.g. teachers, psychologists, speech and language therapists. They run Lámh training from time to time for members of their own organisations and outside. The courses are advertised by the tutors themselves and are usually listed on the Lámh website at www.lamh.com. The staff courses are generally run over five consecutive days or on a one-day-a-week basis and are for those staff who work with individuals with intellectual disabilities and communication needs. Joint training between various professions on the courses is recommended, as collaboration to make Lámh work will be required. Participants on the course receive a full set of Lámh materials. A follow-up day is held after approximately six months. Many services have Lámh tutors within their own organisation who can train staff as required. Where this is not possible, the Lámh Development Office tries to facilitate courses for them.

What is the Family Course?

The family course is also run by Lámh tutors. It was originally designed for the attendance of family members, although others have also attended, e.g. preschool staff, childminders or neighbours. The course involves four 2-2½ hour sessions with one follow-up session (approximately a month later). An individualised approach is used within an overall group structure on family courses.

What are the current developments within Lámh?

The three major development areas identified for Lámh relate to updating (i) the vocabulary (selection and signs), (ii) training courses and (iii) materials.

The people who use Lámh have difficulty acquiring language and communication skills in a normal environment. Specific intervention needs to be undertaken in a way that they can learn and use the system whether on a temporary or permanent basis. Given their needs and those in their environment, many varying and diverse aspects need to be considered in the continuing development and subsequent implementation of Lámh.

The new vocabulary items have been identified—there will be 500 signs—and a signing group involving fluent ISL signers is working on developing the new signs. A new book of signs (and a CD for revision) will be produced to accompany the new vocabulary. Initially, signs need to be learned in a live training situation. Updating of the training courses and some of the associated materials will commence early in 2004.


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