I began my journey with Makaton 11 years ago, when I began to work at Wilson Stuart School, a Special Needs school in Birmingham. This is where I came across some incredible students who used Makaton and I thought it was fantastic: it was fun to use, the students had the ability to be understood with or without the use of their speech, and it enabled them to make choices.
However it was clear that I needed to learn Makaton in order to be more effective with aiding their teaching and being able to communicate more with them. I began to develop a passion for Makaton and saw how incredible it was at allowing for communication and aiding understanding. We developed a fabulous signing environment to a point where we had to put timers on our conversations with the students as we would have always been late to begin our sessions.
As Makaton began to develop across the school I introduced a filmed sign of the week, which I would broadcast on our website and on YouTube. We would use it in our registration and everyone would sign it in our assemblies: the students loved it!
I then realised that more staff needed to be trained in Makaton within the school, as there is only so far one person can stretch!
I went on to become a Local Makaton Tutor, and from then I began training staff within the school so we could create an all-inclusive signing environment, all the way from Primary up through to our 6th Form. I then took the natural progression to become a Regional Tutor so I could begin to generate income for the school and train more people.
Makaton has had a huge impact in the environments I have been in. I see it as a standard requirement that everybody should use as it’s vital for those students / service users to enable them to have their say and be heard.
Therefore all staff and people in the lives of those who use Makaton should be able to use it and understand it too. Otherwise we are encouraging isolation and the inability to communicate and in my eyes no one should have to experience this!
In 2016 I moved from working in Wilson Stuart School to Alex Kelly Ltd in Romsey, where I work at Speaking Space: a unique day service for adults with learning disabilities and autism, where they specialise in social, communication and independent skills.
I found it a completely different working environment as they have been through education and now you get to be with them and enjoy their adult life with them. It’s fantastic, I am running sing and sign sessions, Talkabout, cooking, and group games. As Speaking Space already uses a total communicative approach and all of the staff were fabulous signers, it was a great environment to become Makaton Friendly. We added some symbols around the building and I tweaked some of the staff’s signs throughout short training sessions and modelling. We gained our status within two months of me starting work.
My next step was to support the service users out into the community and to help them communicate more effectively by going to the café’s, boutiques and all of the other lovely places there are in Romsey.
I began to see a pattern. There are fantastic communicators within the day service but when out in the community, the communication aids were put into bags by the service users and signs weren’t being used as confidently. This didn’t sit comfortably with me and I got thinking.
I realised from working in a school and going into adult care that I have seen a massive gap and fault in our system.
We have taught people with a communication need to become brilliant communicators all though their educational lives and into their adult life, which is fantastic, but there is an element missing. Where are they able to use their social communicative skills? They are able to communicate at home, their day service, with carers and certain family members: these are all great but still limited.
I had an idea one day… What if we had a whole a town become Makaton Friendly! To me this would entail reducing the social anxieties around adults and children with a communication difficulty and learning disability. A place where people can sign comfortably and be able to be understood when they sign, for the organisations to have symbols around the building to make it easier to navigate around, to be welcomed with a smile and hello, rather than looking in the other direction. A place where they can be socially included and accepting of all forms of communication.
I approached Alex and Brian, who are the directors of Alex Kelly Ltd and Speaking Space, and they thought it was a fantastic idea. They allowed me to run with my idea and supported me with this exciting initiative.
I approached The Makaton Charity and they too thought it was a fantastic idea. As it hasn’t been done before they decided that if I could get 30 organisations within Romsey Makaton Friendly we would achieve the status of the first Makaton Friendly town!
I approached the Romsey Chamber of Commerce, emergency services, library, Mayor and Town Council of Romsey to present the idea to them. They were enthusiastic and offered me incredible support to launch the initiative.
I also received fantastic support and feedback from the community, and a local parent in Romsey thanked me for allowing their son to be able to grow in a community where he will be understood. I put on training throughout the year and various talks to keep the enthusiasm and excitement running throughout the town.
Nearly a year after launching the initiative we have 30 organisations who are Makaton Friendly.
The Romsey community welcomed this initiative with open arms and have been incredibly supportive. I have been blown away by the community spirit that is here in the town. Without the support of Alex Kelly Ltd, the team at Speaking Space, and the community of Romsey this wouldn’t be possible. It is truly a special place which has inclusion for all.
At Speaking Space we regularly go into Romsey to practice communication skills and support the local businesses to practice their signing and continue to boost everyone’s confidence with signing. We even have local colleges bringing their service users into the community to experience the Makaton Friendly environment.
As well as the local community signing between each other. The previous mayor John Parker used Makaton in his final speech as mayor which was inspiring and seen by all of the community and the local MP.
We now take our service users out regularly into the community and get them to order their drinks independently at the local café’s using Makaton signs, communication books, and communication aids.
A gentleman in his 30s who attends the day service ordered his very own hot chocolate in the first time in 30 years!
It has made a huge difference in the confidence of those who use a form of AAC to communicate. To the point where they are running into the day service eager to begin the day and get out into the community.
It has boosted their confidence, built stronger friendships, and built a community presence of Makaton. It’s become the talk of the town and brought the community even closer.
We want everyone to experience the independence and happiness service users can get through signing and communicating directly to who they want to speak with, rather than via their parent or carer. Let’s make a difference to more people’s lives by reducing their social anxiety around communication, by just learning a few signs. This can make such a difference to the lives of those who use Makaton.
Come and experience Romsey the first Makaton Friendly town!
Hannah Anderson is a Makaton Regional Tutor, and founder of the Makaton Friendly town.