Episode 55:

Symbols of Inclusion (Part 1)

Date released: July 2014. Updated September 2017


Symbols, or visual aids, can be very effective tools to help communication and understanding. They are easy to create and can be applied to any sport setting. In Part 1 of this mini-series we look at why symbols are important and how we might use them…

Have you ever been in another country? A country where people speak a different language to you? Difficult isn’t it! You cope by using sign language. You cope by looking at symbols. Pictures of things that identify places, directions and objects. Symbols for toilets. Symbols for parking or for finding a bus. Symbols are everywhere when you need to find them.

You could say that when we are in a different country we are disadvantaged by our surroundings. We are disadvantaged as our usual form of communication is shut off. We can’t read anymore. We can’t communicate with language.

Welcome to the world of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). AACs have been used for many years as a means to ‘compensate (temporarily or permanently) for the impairment and disability patterns of individuals with disorders of communication’ (Beukelman and Mirenda, 1992). That’s a rather medical description of AACs but, the point is, that we all have ‘disorders of communication’ at different moments in life depending very much on our surroundings. Some people rely on AACs more than others, even for regular everyday communication in daily lives.

Now, there are many different forms of AACs but in this mini-series of episodes we are going to look at the use of symbols and how they can help facilitate the inclusion of people with learning and communication difficulties into sport. We will do this because we believe there is huge, largely hidden, potential for the use of symbols to facilitate inclusion in sport.

But first a bit of background.

Using Symbols as a Tool for Inclusion

The rationale for the development of symbols as a means of communication was based on the fact that symbols are static and consistently provide a simple means of communication that promotes understanding and meaning. The usual form of verbal communication is transient and requires more processing. It also requires the listener to store the message in memory and recall it later on. Symbols are static and, generally, require less processing and reliance on memory.

There has been a great deal of research into the use of symbols. Generally, while symbols have been found to be effective it is important to understand individual needs and contexts. What might work in one context may not work in another. What may suit one individual will not necessarily suit another. While this can make the use of symbols a bit problematic, it is very possible to use a standard set of symbols across a wide range of contexts and individual needs.

Symbols can be used individually, as a label. This helps people understand what the symbol means. They are also used collectively to help understanding and communication of related tasks and actions. We are going to focus on two methods commonly deployed when using symbols collectively. These are particularly helpful in a sporting context so we will look at them here and in the next episode when we apply them to swimming.

Visual Schedules

stacks_image_3356A visual schedule is a series of symbols that depicts related actions in a sequence. For example, symbols can depict actions for a swimming lesson such as enter the water, submerge the body, blow bubbles and demonstrate a front kicking action. These are related tasks where symbols can help with understanding a swimming lesson.

There are different ways a visual schedule can be put together. For example, to depict a routine of actions in the morning, afternoon and evening. Or as a weekly text schedule. Or as a ‘strip’ to depict a closely related sequence of actions. The examples below demonstrate this and are taken from schkidules, who produce magnetic backing boards with magnetic symbols you can customize.


Social Stories

A Social StoryTM is more like a pictorial narrative of a related sequence of actions. Carol Gray first defined Social StoriesTM in 1991. According to Gray:

Better still, let’s see what Carol has to say directly about Social StoriesTM in this short video:

We hope you are starting to see the possibilities of symbols in a sport setting.

In Episode 13: Growing Your TREE Skills, we talked about adapting activities for people with an intellectual disability. For many regular coaches and teachers it is harder to look at ways to adapt and modify activities for people with an intellectual and/or learning disability because they do not bring with them the type of prosthetics that people with physical and sensory disabilities often do. People with a physical disability bring their wheelchair or their prosthetic limb. People with sensory impairment bring with them hearing aids or spectacles. Symbols, or similar visual teaching aids, are in many ways, the cognitive prosthesis that people with intellectual and/or learning disability can bring. Where possible, this type of cognitive prosthesis should be temporary. People should not build up a reliance on symbols if they do not need to.

Now, you probably realise this is a VERY short introduction into the use of symbols—there’s a lot more to it than we have presented here. Hopefully you can see the potential here. if you are keen to learn a bit more we strongly encourage you to watch the fascinating TED Talk by Ajit Narayanan. Ajit has done a lot of work with young people with Autism and developed a concept of communication using words and pictures as ‘maps.’

The good news is that the construction of visual schedules and social stories is very possible across all sports and in all contexts. But apart from a few exceptions this has rarely been done—until now!In the next episode we are going to look at swimming and learn how to construct some visual schedules and social stories to facilitate the inclusion of people with disability into swimming lessons. We are going to develop our own symbols and give you access to a collection of custom built high resolution A4, full colour symbols you can use. There’s a small taster below so you can see what is coming?Who knows, we may develop more for different sports in the future.For now, see you in the next episode.



About the author: Peter Downs

About the author: Peter Downs

Founding Director - The Inclusion Club

Peter is Founding Director of The Inclusion Club and Manager of Play by the Rules – a national initiative to promote safe, fair and inclusive sport. Peter has worked for over 25 years in the field of inclusive sport, disability sport and physical activity including 17 years managing the Australian Sports Commission’s Disability Sport Unit.  In 2013 Peter was fortunate enough to receive a Churchill Fellowship to study models of best practice in inclusive sport and physical activity.