A Sacred Task

Our books Oct 26, 2021

By William Boone Bonvillian

When my brother, Professor John D. Bonvillian, learned that he had only a few months to live, he responded with one crystallized dying wish:  to ensure that his Simplified Sign System was launched and made available to the world. John had worked with colleagues at the University of Virginia in the United States to create this easy to form and easy to remember manual communication system for the last twenty years of his life.  He believed that Simplified Signs would change lives for countless individuals who struggle to master other modes of communication.  At the time of my brother’s cancer diagnosis, the Simplified Sign System had been designed, tested, explained and illustrated, but it had not been published, promoted or adopted.  The diagnosis made my brother realize that he would not be able to take the project across the finish line, and for this he turned to my family and me.  We knew from the start that John had entrusted us with the gift of a sacred task.

We wanted to publish Simplified Signs with an academic publisher to honor John’s careful academic approach to the development of Simplified Signs as well as his long career as an academic psychologist.   At the same time we wanted the signs to be freely and readily available to anyone and everyone who might use them, and we wanted a copyright license that would encourage others to create additional materials to teach and expand the signs.

At the time that John began the Simplified Signs project it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to meet all of these goals.  But by the time of John’s death, the Internet had disrupted the publishing world, and the dream of open and fair worldwide access to academic material had taken hold.  We were able to publish a two volume set, Simplified Signs: A Manual Sign-Communication System for Special Populations, with Open Book Publishers in 2020.  The material is available online and may be downloaded for free, and it is also available in hard copy for a fee that reflects little more than printing costs. Moreover, the work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC BY 4.0). This license allows others to share, copy, distribute and transmit the text; to adapt the text and to make commercial use of the text providing that attribution is made to the authors (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse the derivative work).

The open licensing of the material already has been helpful in the spread and promotion of Simplified Signs and we expect that it will reap more benefits over time.  For now we can report that a website, as well as twitter and YouTube accounts about Simplified Signs have been established, and a major state university has an online course under development to teach and promote Simplified Signs.  While the target audience for the course will be adults with special needs and their caregivers in that state, the course will be available worldwide for a nominal fee.

Open Book Publishers has made the Simplified Signs widely available not only to academics, but also to special needs individuals and their caregivers worldwide.   The publisher’s August 2021 statistics report that the volumes have been used by thousands of individuals on six continents.  And what is more, the open licensing arrangement is acting as a force multiplier in promoting and expanding the use of Simplified Signs.

Sacred tasks can never be completely accomplished.  We expect this one to change and grow over time.  But thanks to Open Book Publishers Simplified Signs is launched in a way that will allow it to move and grow on its own.  We know that John would be proud.

Read Simplified Signs: A Manual Sign-Communication System for Special Populations, Volume 1 and Volume 2 at https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/1165 & https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/1215.

John D. Bonvillian was a faculty member in the Psychology Department at the University of Virginia for thirty-seven years. He also chaired the University’s Interdepartmental Program in Linguistics. He was known for his contributions to the study of sign language, child development, psycholinguistics, and language acquisition. His research focused on typically developing children, deaf children, and children with disabilities. For the last seventeen years of his career he worked on a simplified, manual sign-communication system. The initial focus of this work was to create an easily-adopted signing system for speech-limited populations, such as individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy. Later, he studied applications of the Simplified Sign System for foreign language acquisition and for children in limited language environments. He and his research colleagues developed and tested a lexicon of approximately 1850 easily-formed, highly iconic signs or gestures, some of which are presented in these volumes. Bonvillian received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University, where he held a National Science Foundation doctoral fellowship. His B.A. was from Johns Hopkins University in Psychology. He authored over 100 journal articles and was an editor of the journal Sign Language Studies. Before taking his position at the University of Virginia, Bonvillian taught at Vassar College. He also served as a visiting faculty member at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He died in 2018.

William B. Bonvillian is a Lecturer at MIT, and Senior Director at MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, leading a project on workforce education. From 2006 until 2017, he was Director of MIT’s Washington Office, supporting MIT’s historic role in science policy. He teaches courses on innovation systems at MIT and is coauthor of three books on innovation, Advanced Manufacturing: The New American Innovation Policies (2018), Technological Innovation in Legacy Sectors (2015), and Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution (2009), as well as numerous articles.  Previously he worked for over fifteen years on innovation issues as a senior advisor in the U.S. Senate, and earlier was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation. He serves on the National Academies of Science standing committee for its Innovation Policy Forum and chairs the Committee on Science and Engineering Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  He was elected a Fellow of the AAAS in 2011.

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