Blissful communication; Symbols open doors for people who can't speak

First published in Hamilton Spectator May 10, 2001

A cry of a new born baby, gives birth to a new life that will interact with the world. Without learning how to communicate through language, individuals wouldn't be able to get an education, get jobs or have a normal lifestyle. Moreover, language gives each one of us the gateway to express our needs, dreams and hopes. Without this capability, life becomes a war within the soul. I lived through this until I was twelve. I fought a battle daily trying to interact with those in my environment.

Three decades ago, a visionary teacher was looking for an alternative way to unlock the inner person of her ten nonspeaking students, at the Ontario Crippled Children's Centre (now the Bloorview MacMillan Centre). As a result of her search, Shirley McNaughton, a teacher at the Centre, discovered "Signs and Symbols Around The World" by Elizabeth Helfman in a Toronto library in September, 1971. In Helfman's book there was a chapter on "the newest symbol language - Blissymbolics. It would prove to be the key to open up the flood gates to a new language for nonspeaking persons. A dawning of a new day was just about to make its greatest journey which would offer peace to souls without a voice, across the nations.

The section in Helfman's book prompted a search across Canada for the source book, which was called Semantography (Blissymbolics) "A logical Writing for an illogical world. It was located In February 1972 at Laurentian University In Sudbury. This gave the team of professionals at the Ontario Crippled Children's Centre great hope for a new language that would allow nonspeaking persons the ability to communicate. Semantography was written by Charles K. Bliss. He developed his pictographic, ideographic symbol system between 1942 - 1949. He wanted this system to be used by persons from different language backgrounds to have a common way to communicate.

Although his vision never became a reality in the way he intended, the application of his symbols in Toronto caused another branch to develop. This vital form of communicating spread throughout Ontario and the world in the early seventies - a system that brought new horizons and new realities to children who couldn't communicate with their families and others in their environments.

In Hamilton, it was a dedicated teacher, Barbara Rush, who became the pioneer leader. Teachers, other professionals and parents saw the vital amazing changes in the children's outlooks. Everybody who was involved knew that they found a vital key that could unlock trapped minds. While picture systems enable nonspeaking individuals to have an immediate way of communicating, these systems don't offer a comprehensive way to further exploring language and print. I can testify to this because Bliss gave me the platform which started me on my journey of being a writer.

I was one of Barbara Rush's first students. Without Bliss, there is no doubt in my mind I wouldn't be sitting behind a keyboard, writing this article. I have the words of another of my early teachers to prove it! In 1976, Wayne Atones, Orthopaedic Class teacher wrote: "Paul's training at the C.P. Centre was extremely successful. In ten months, he had mastered 643 symbols and many strategies which enabled him to say almost anything... one could sense the air of self-confidence which radiated from his proud face. Teachers and students who had known Paul from his previous Linger days were amazed and excited to see how one small board containing many strange symbols could have such an influence on his self-confidence... Paul's ability to communicate using his symbols has had many positive effects on his academic, emotional and social life. He carries his compact symbol board everywhere and has repeatedly acclaimed that 'this is one of the greatest things to ever happen to me'".

Blissymbolics Communication International (BCI) was organized in 1975 to support the use of Blissymbolics for persons who are nonspeaking spreaded worldwide and was a major breakthrough. It is now used in over 33 countries and has been translated into 17 languages. I have been pleased to served on the BCI board of directors for the past nine years and have witnessed the vital help Blissymbolics can provide on both a local and international level. It is a very special feeling for me to be on the giving end of the system that gave me the crucial communication element that allowed me to bloom as a teenager.

We are celebrating our thirtieth Anniversary of Using Blissymbolics in Canada. In June we will be participating in the Celebration Weekend, entitled "Canadians from Eh to Zed", June 1-3, at the new 'Canada and the World Pavilion' in Rideau Falls Park, 50 Sussex Drive, Ottawa. Bliss Canada, on behalf of Blissymbolics Communication International, will have a permanent display at this site for the next three years. We anticipate this will be an informative and enjoyable place for persons to visit when they come to Canada's capital. In the fall, we will be having a 30th Anniversary Celebration in Southern Ontario.

The concern and caring of a team of professionals, following one teacher's discovery, gave birth to an international language that has impacted greatly on many individuals as they found a way to communicate and in turn to take part in their world.

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