Simplified Signs: My brother’s gift, delivered by Open Book Publishers

Oct 22, 2020

by William B. Bonvillian

When my brother, John Bonvillian, an emeritus faculty member at the University of Virginia, died in 2018, he had just put the finishing touches on the capstone project of his academic career in psychology and linguistics – the Simplified Signs Project.   Simplified Signs are a manual sign communication system for individuals with special needs.  It is designed to be particularly simple – far easier to learn and use than a traditional sign language.   It was my brother John’s wish that his lifelong project be made available to the world in a form that would allow his new sign system to be used freely and creatively by anyone who needed or wanted it.

My brother’s wish seemed like a bit of a pipe dream at the time of his death, but I promised him I would do my best.  At that dark moment I couldn’t imagine that I would find such a competent and enthusiastic partner in Open Book Publishers to share my brother’s vision of free and open access to his work.  In August of 2020, together with my brother’s stalwart co-authors Nicole Kissane Lee, Tracy Dooley and Filip Loncke, Open Book Publishers published Simplified Signs:  A manual sign-communication system for special populations.

The Simplified Signs Project, which occupied my brother and a small army of dedicated students and faculty at the University of Virginia for the previous twenty years, involved the development of a sign communication system that was truly simple:  simple to use because the signs represent concepts that can signify multiple words, simple to formbecause the signs do not require sophisticated hand shapes or movements and simple to remember because the signs look like what they mean. My brother began the project with the idea of helping individuals with special needs who have difficulty mastering speech or a traditional sign language, but over time interest in the project expanded to include many other uses such as communication across language barriers, in medical settings, in foreign language study programs and even communicating with babies.

The Simplified Signs Project consists of two parts:  a scholarly volume on the history, uses and research about signing and sign language, and a lexicon of approximately one thousand signs presented as drawings accompanied by descriptive text.  I wanted to honor my brother’s scholarship by publishing with the imprimatur of peer review and a solid academic reputation, but I also wanted the lexicon to be presented to the public promptly and for free (or at least for a very affordable price.)

While I easily found a traditional academic publisher that was enthusiastic about publishing my brother’s work, after many months there were still no peer reviewers identified and the publisher could give no firm time commitment about a publication date.  Perhaps more importantly, the traditional academic publisher wanted to hold the copyright in the published work and to charge an undefined but predictably hefty price for access to the material.

When I found and began working with Open Book Publishers fresh air and sunshine enveloped the project.  Open Book promptly found two very rigorous academic reviewers, it edited well and expeditiously, it designed and typeset a beautiful pair of volumes and it published them in less than 12 months.  And most importantly, Open Book made Simplified Signs available to the public for free under a Creative Commons license that allows users to share, copy, distribute and transmit the text; to adapt the text and even to make commercial use of the text provided appropriate attribution is given to the authors. This, we felt, would greatly help in spreading the simplified signs.

Already others are making tutorials to teach the Simplified Signs and videos are in the works.  Open Book has fulfilled my brother’s wish beyond his dreams, and it has delivered his gift to the world.  Open Book made it possible to give you John’s signs.

This is an Open Access title available to read and download for free. Please, click here to access Vol. 1 and here for Vol.2.