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Hopes that Irish children's TV will follow UK and feature Lámh signing after viral video

Lámh is Ireland’s version of Makaton.

EARLIER THIS WEEK, a video went viral showing the reaction of a young boy to the actor Rob Delaney signing a bedtime story on the CBeebies channel.

Delaney wasn’t using British Sign Language – he was using something called Makaton.

Here in Ireland, we have our own version of Makaton. It’s called Lámh, and while it’s based on Irish Sign Language, it’s a different form of signing. The team behind Lámh welcomed the excitement about Delaney’s CBeebies appearance, saying they hoped it would encourage Irish children’s television to feature Lámh.

“Lámh is a manual or key word signing system for children and adults with intellectual disabilities and communication needs in Ireland,” explains Mary Cullen, manager of Lámh Developmental Office.

It’s a signing system as opposed to a sign language. Irish sign language is the natural sign language of the Deaf community in Ireland and has evolved naturally as a language – it wasn’t set up or created by anyone.

While Irish Sign Language (ISL) is a complex language with grammar and a huge vocabulary, Lámh is different. It’s mainly for children and adults who have intellectual disabilities, to help them with communication. It is not strictly for people who are hearing impaired in some way. 

“Lámh was created in the early 1980s – it is a system of a small number of signs that are less complicated [than ISL],” says Cullen. She explains that it’s a system, rather than a language like ISL. 

Láamh is linked to ISL – some of the gestures or signs are based on or adapted from it. “It means if the person eventually needs to go on and add to their vocab or go on to more complex form of sign, they won’t have to relearn,” says Cullen. 

There are 500 signs in the Lámh system. While some people use the signs for a short period of time, others use them throughout their lives. Lámh can be used as an alternative means of communication to speech, or along with speech and other communication supports.

“With Lámh there isn’t finger spelling – [for example] it’s a very simple hand shape to describe ‘apple’, it’s like a curved hand ‘C’ shape. Hopefully it’s easy to make even if the person might have a bit of difficulty with their manual dexterity.”

38728912_2153268891412895_1012697226188685312_n Source: Lamh/Facebook

Lámh is used by some people as a bridge until their speech has developed. Children who have Down syndrome, for example, might have a delay in speech due to their muscle tone, so might use Lámh as a bridge. 

With Lámh, the word is spoken as the sign is made, so the emphasis is on both speech and the sign. “Lamh isn’t about hearing impairment,” explains Cullen. “A Lámh user doesn’t necessarily have difficulties with hearing, they have difficulties with communication and speech and language.”


The benefits of Lámh include reducing frustration for the child. “They need a way to say ‘I wanted to play with teddy and not the jigsaw’, or ‘milk not orange juice’,” says Cullen. It also means that their friends and family, and wider community, can use the signs to communicate with them.

“Increasingly you’d have a child who uses Lámh in a mainstream school,” she says. “Other children will be using Lámh to communicate with them.” 

While they don’t have exact numbers of the people who use Lámh, they do know that so far 3,500 people have attended Lámh training in 2018 – this includes teachers, nurses and preschool staff as well as family members.

Cullen says the interest in Lámh is growing, particularly as children use it in mainstream schools.

“Communication is so important, and so Lamh signing would help communication in that the person who has difficulty communicating, or maybe comprehending, is able to see as well as to hear,” says Cullen.

It is always used with words. You would be saying ‘apple’ or ‘yogurt’ along with the sign. That child or adult can see the sign being made – there’s a visual clue as well as the word. You can hold the sign to give time to work out what the message is.

How do Lámh and Makaton differ?

Source: Lamh Signs/YouTube

Makaton is a language programme that’s based on British Sign Language, and used in the UK. However, ‘Makaton’ is also a charity and a brand, and different countries around the world use Makaton that has been adapted according to the sign language there. 

So Makaton can differ from country to country. Like Lámh, you need to undergoing training in order to learn Makaton.

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The Lámh office is a small one – just two people work there and there is a voluntary board of directors. Across the country, there are 220 Lámh tutors and trainers who work in various organisation such as the HSE, Brothers of Charity and Enable Ireland. 

Each year, Lámh must apply for a grant from the HSE, which covers its core running cost. This doesn’t provide for the DVDs or online content that is produced by the Lámh office. Funds raised by the existing Lámh DVD will go towards making new resources.

Lámh on Irish TV

With regard to promoting Lámh, Cullen says they would “passionately love to see Lámh on TV”, particularly after seeing how the CBeebies clip was received.

That clip is of a little boy watching, he’s so excited. Whether he knows Rob Delaney the actor or not, he’s seeing his language being used on TV. That would be so important to people and people often ask why don’t we have that. 

In the UK, the CBeebies character Mr Tumble uses Makaton, and there would be hopes something similar might emerge in Ireland. “We’ve got the model for that because we’ve got our Lámh-a-song DVD, which contains 15 nursery rhymes,” says Cullen. 

There are plans in the works to record more Lámh nursery rhymes and songs in collaboration with production company Macalla Teoranta. “When we have that it will be so good to see it appearing,” says Cullen. “That and having Lámh in schools as part of the school system and programme would be so valuable. When it’s in a school, the school gets very passionate about it.”

Earlier this month, Minister Katherine Zappone announce that Lámh training would be part of the AIM (Access and Inclusion Model) Better Start programme for young children.

Anecdotes and research have shown that Lámh also helps speech to develop. “It’s not used as a replacement [for speech] it’s alongside it,” says Cullen. “It’s a bridge to or support for speech. It gives people a way of practicing communication.”

There is no prescription for how early to introduce Lámh. Signs could be introduced to a child who may present with communication difficulties from six to nine months onwards – but that would meant the parents signing, it wouldn’t be the expectation that the child would sign back. 

Sometimes, when parents are aware that their child might have communication difficulties, they will introduce Lámh at that stage. Other times people wait until later on or introduce it at the point that they realise there are communication difficulties, in order to support the child communicating.

Lámh is “adding to the child’s world”, says Cullen. 

To find out more about Lámh, visit its website and Facebook page. 

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