Makaton is a form of language which uses an individually-tailored combination of symbols, signs, and speech. This combination makes it possible for handicapped people to communicate, even if they cannot physically speak. Its name comes from the first names of the 3 people who developed it between 1972 and 1976: Margaret Walker, Katherine Johnston, and Tony Cornforth.
The created language is designed to be learned and used by children and adults with communication difficulties because of learning, physical, or multi-sensory disabilities. It is taught and used in schools, hospitals, colleges, homes, and other training environments. By 1982, 95% of schools for children with special needs were using Makaton.
Although it is designed to supplement speech rather than replace it altogether, Makaton can be tailored to a person’s individual needs. For most people, Makaton is a stepping stone to developing spoken language skills. The visual component of Makaton gives an extra clue for understanding, which reduces any frustration because of an inability to communicate. To make the transition easier, all signs, symbols, or words are used in the same order as the words would have been spoken.
The signs in Makaton are based on British Sign Language (BSL). The symbols are simple black and white drawings which show the meaning of each word. A greater emphasis can be placed on either symbols or signs, depending on the person’s abilities and preferences.
Whenever possible, the signs and symbols of Makaton should be accompanied by verbal speech. The communication partner should always use verbal speech as part of Makaton. This helps to create a cognitive link between the spoken word and the concept.
Modern Makaton has a core vocabulary of approximately 450 concepts which are taught over 8 stages, starting with basic vocabulary for immediate needs, such as the signs for “eat” and “drink.” Later stages introduce more abstract or complex vocabulary. Vocabulary has also been developed beyond the 8 stages, for a total of over 11,000 concepts which can be communicated in Makaton.
Over 100,000 people use Makaton as part of their daily lives. Many of these people learned Makaton as children. Some outgrew it as they grew older and developed better speaking skills through speech therapy. However, some will have to use Makaton for their entire lives.
Makaton resources and translation into Makaton are maintained by the Makaton Charity. The Makaton Charity also provides Makaton training and workshops to parents, professionals, and caregivers.