Tag Archives: symbols

Voting on symbols at Awsaj Academy

tablet with symbolIt has always been felt that it was essential that AAC users and those with communication difficulties should evaluate our symbols as part our research into symbol acceptance with real participation at all stages. We felt that this would ensure that the very people who would be using the symbols would provide us with feedback so we could tailor the symbols to their needs.

The team contacted the Speech Therapy team at Awsaj Academy for students with special needs to see if we could do a voting session with some of their students. Dr. Biji Philips arranged for 11 students to vote individually, with 15 minute time slots to complete the task. 2 students; a Tobii user with Cerebral Palsy and another with severe Autism required 30-45 minutes.

student votingThe students were given 20 of our symbols to vote on and a thumbs up and thumbs down symbol to communicate their like/dislike for the symbol. Some students preferred to use okay as an option as well. Based on the student’s capacity judged online, Nadine and I asked why they liked/disliked the symbols. Some of the older students were superb and gave us detailed feedback relating to the need for more detailed facial expressions, or adding context to the symbol rather than just characters. Others did not want to let us down and said they liked the majority of the symbols. Here are the results of the voting sessions:




Student comments






Hello (Assalumu alaikum)



–   Not clear, waving or speaking

–   Saying hi and smiling

–   He tells how are you

–   Goodbye

–   Nice because he’s wearing Thobe

–   Nice clothes

–   Clear

–   Goodbye

Rice & Chicken

12 –   Only chicken

–   Doesn’t look like our food

–   Chicken


10 2 –   Not nice hair

–   Put them in uniform

–   Boys


12 –   Very nice

–   Sing

–   Nice because he’s dancing properly

–   Nice design


9 2 1 –   Looks angry

–   I don’t see plate or water; I like that he’s opening his mouth and has spoon

–   Eat with hands

–   Don’t wear Thobe when you eat

–   Holding pen


11 1 –   Won

–   Appropriate for Qatar


10 2 –   Uniform

–   Like because it has 2nd and 3rd

–   Clear

–   Thobe are same

–   It’s nice how they hold each other

–   All the shoes black color

–   Shoes different

–   They shouldn’t hold their hands, it’s a shame


12 –   White + door white/gray; It’s big

–   White + smaller

–   Two thumbs up

–   Like our house

–   Qatari houses are different


12 –   Change clothes color

–   The girl is hugging her mother

–   Mom cuz wearing Abaya


10 1 1 –   Needs arrow on top of  head

–   Picture matches meaning

–   Full body

–   Not clear


10 2 –   Add rainbow color + lighten colors to look more happy

–   Child holding hand + smiling

–   Put Abaya

–   Should be in Abaya. I know non-Muslims don’t wear it. Should wear Abaya wherever you go

–   Black Abaya


11 1 –   I like he’s praying

–   Like him praying

–   Put him in the house. You don’t pray in the middle of the road

–   Clear


12 –   Kids are playing and smiling

–   Good

–   School

–   The colors are nice

–   Nice colors


5 2 5 –   Add text

–   She’s saying please and child should be angry

–   Open hands

–   Tilt head

–   Telling secrets

–   Not clear, I can’t see the two hands

–   Talk

–   Greeting

Souq Waqif

10 2 –   Add a lot of people

–   It has Thobe and Abaya

–   Looks like the old days

–   Didn’t know

–   Change the buildings


7 5 –   Needs more colors + full mosque

–   Not clear

–   Put someone praying + purple sky

–   There’s a bird

–   Didn’t know

–   It’s a mosque, not clear, maybe add colors.

–   I prefer the other praying symbol

–   Add colors

Thank you

8 1 3 –   Hand  gesture is more I love you ; handshake

–   Hold and shake hands

–   I do this for thank you

–   No hand on chest

–   He’s saying the national anthem

–   I don’t use this gesture for thank you

–   Hands greeting


10 2 –   More sky + men with yellow clothes

–   Need stairs or bus

–   Terminal

–   Dad looks like brother

–   Add airport


10 2 –   They should look at each other

–   Context. Add playground

–   Clothes are so different and shoes are different

–   Didn’t know

–   Not clear

–   Come


9 1 2 –   Show side profile + say bye to someone else

–   Sad face for saying bye

Boys on a stand as winners

Overall it was a great voting session with some valuable feedback obtained. Speech therapists reinforced the need for such a project, giving the example of one student who “could not look at” a picture card used for inferencing emotions due to the image of the boys not covering their arms (picture below). Teachers also reported that students felt empowered by giving their feedback, as they had always been accustomed to receiving help, but on this occasion they felt they were able to help others.


Symbols for different settings across the world.

map of countries for Tawasol Symbols downloads

World map where Tawasol Symbols have been downloaded

There have been many debates about localisation and globalisation or internationalisation and the different requirements to support these ideas – W3C have provided definitions that fit the web and in many ways localisation can support concepts used on web pages namely customisation related to:

  1. “Numeric, date and time formats
  2. Use of currency
  3. Keyboard usage
  4. Collation and sorting
  5. Symbols, icons and colors
  6. Text and graphics containing references to objects, actions or ideas which, in a given culture, may be subject to misinterpretation or viewed as insensitive.
  7. Varying legal requirements
  8. and many more things.”

We have acted on many of the W3C ideas over the last two and half years and noticed that while we have been developing our symbols for an audience based mainly in the MIddle East many of those who have requested use of the symbols and downloads have come from as far afield as Sweden, Australia and India.   We know some of these symbols have been for refugee groups and camps and others have been for religious symbols.  Both these requests have led to an increase in the number of symbols we have produced in these areas and many have been seen on our Facebook pages.

facebook sample symbols

But we are not the only ones making symbols for a wider audience and it is interesting to know that there have been requests that Apple should introduce emojis with women wearing the hijab with a petition gaining over 2,295 signatures seven months ago and headline news from the BBC and many others.

Many refugee organisations have booklets and charts with images to help those who do not speak the language of the country to which they are going. An example is the ICOON project which has many charts for download as PDF files.  These images tend to be in monochrome but cover a wide range of topics.

icoon symbols

Example of ICOON refugee charts freely available to download in PDF

Tawasol symbols are also available for download with charts in both Arabic and English and we have included religious settings and have an interactive version as a demonstration to illustrate the symbols in action thanks to The Open Voice Factory. 

sample prayer symbols

Sample prayer symbols from the interactive online communication chart

The Mix of Symbols and Words – Where, When and How?

YouTube Video Published on Jul 24, 2015  (1hour 25mins lecture)

Janice Light ( Penn State University) describe strategies for maximizing the literacy skills of individuals who require AAC.  This webcast was produced as part of the work of the AAC-RERC under grant #H133E080011 from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR)in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS)

In recent years there has been increased interest in teaching literacy skills to those who use AAC and one particular research project on Literacy Instruction led by Janice Light and David McNaughton at Penn State University in the USA has resulted in a very useful resource.  Not everyone agrees about how this task should be achieved and there remains the dilemma around the amount and type of symbols that should be used to support the learning of words with  letter combinations especially where phonics is involved and bilingualism.

Here Jane Farrall highlights other issues in her article “Symbol Supported Text: Does it really help?” and cites Erickson, Hatch & Clendon (2010) who also say:

For multiple reasons, pairing picture symbols with words may limit access to learning to read. Pictures actually may increase confusion, especially when they represent abstract concepts, have multiple meanings, or serve more than one grammatical function (Hatch, 2009). This is particularly true when words do not have obvious picture referents, as is the case with verbs such as do and is. Because they do not have picture referents, they must be represented by abstract, arbitrary symbols […]. While the orthographic (print) representation of these words is also abstract, printed words appear much more frequently and are understood more broadly than are abstract picture symbols. As a result, students learning to read the words rather than recognize the abstract picture symbols have more opportunities to encounter the words and interact with others who understand them.

We have already discussed the issues about learning the sounds that make up the various parts of words along in a previous blog and the Tawasol website offers text to speech to support the syllables and diacritics that aid the learning of phonemes.  But there is a problem when learning individual letters as they change their sound when said in isolation.  The text to speech does not always make a good job of the sounds required so it may be that we will need to use recordings for this element.

in the meantime there is also the issue of how much symbol support is provided when learning groups of words or small linking words such as conjunctions, prepositions etc. Some speakers such as Marion Stanton illustrate the problem very vividly in a talk about “Supporting students who use AAC to access the curriculum”. when working with an older student and others such as Professor Janice Murray have also shown in their slides about Language, Literacy and AAC the problems when words may not have any representative symbols or have very different meanings in certain situations and how a simple word symbol matching system will not work.

sample f text and symbols

Sample of text and symbols taken from the Dundee StandUp project consent form

The symbol dictionary team have been debating how to make supportive information and booklets available using the Tawasol symbols knowing that this is an important subject and one needs to start when on the journey to reading and writing as soon as possible as suggested by Carole Zangari in her ‘Lessons for Beginning AAC users‘ .

The issues that have been discussed have begun with such simple concerns as

  • Should text be above or below the symbols?  See Cricksoft’s practical point  and looking at all the handouts it seems to depend on personal choice?
  • Should the accurately written sentence appear below or above the symbols or each symbol match a word?
  • Should some words remain as words or always be translated into representative symbols even if the result is not always an easy one to interpret?
El Greco page using symbols

With grateful thanks to ARASAAC for all their support in this project

Some of the abstract linking words or conjunctions and prepositions simply do not work in a bilingual dictionary situation. This may be due to the position and direction of an arrow due to the right to left and left to right directions of the text or it may be the fact that a simple mathematical symbol may be easier to understand when compared to an unknown image. There is also the thought that it might be easier to learn a word such as ‘of’ instead of showing it as and ‘from’ and research has shown that there may be times when not working with the actual words slows literacy skill progress. 

On the other hand even though you may not speak Spanish this page illustrates how a booklet with supporting symbols can explain a piece of history where learning to read is not the main aim.  Here the goal is to communicate a story for knowledge building and enabling all those involved in the visit to the museum to have an inclusive experience.   This image has been taken from a booklet about El Greco developed by Dirección General de Organización, Calidad Educativa y Formación Profesional de la Consejería de Educación, Cultura y Deportes de Castilla-La Mancha.with pictograms from Sergio Palao. Procedencia ARASAAC (http://arasaac.org). Licencia Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA).

It is felt that when developing AAC materials they will nearly always need to bespoke, but when they are being offered for general use there needs to be a clear understanding as to their intended use.   As can be seen in this short article the needs of the AAC user may vary enormously depending on their abilities, skills and situation as well as the type of teaching task and resources available.  communication and knowledge building may well be aided by the combination of symbols and text.  However, literacy skill building may require other types of strategies and different learning materials.


Erickson, K.A., Hatch, P. & Clendon, S. (2010). Literacy, Assistive Technology, and Students with Significant Disabilities. Focus on Exceptional Children, 42(5), 1 – 16.  (Accessed 11 Dec 2015) https://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-240102195.html

Additional symbols for Qatari culture based on ARASAAC symbols.

Over the last few months Dana Lawand (as the project graphic designer) has been building up a guide to the changes she has been making to the symbols that have been developed for each voting session.  Here are just a few of the early guidelines that may help others working in the world of localisation.

Qatari dress code

  • Emphasis on Qatari dress code in public. How men and women appear in their traditional clothing in public. Culturaly appropriate dress for young women, children are too young for the rules of the dress code so their dress is more colourful and casual and even westernised at times depending on age.






Local Landmarks

  • Food, museums, animals, sight seeing have been added or adapted to suit the locality – one humped camels and food with a joint rather than small pieces etc.local items

Arabic language

  • Words that appear within the boundaries of a symbol have been changed to the Arabic language so calendars, nonsense words used on the phone such as ‘blah, blah, blah and when writing.
  • Appropriate orthography has been used – numbers go left to right, no capitals, cursive script from right to left.

wording for Arabic





Skin tone

Social settings

  • Dress code has been much debated and voted upon with mixed results as has the need for
  • Appropriate male and female gatherings, the two (men & women) are commonly separated.

social settings


Vehicles, homes and technology

  • In Qatar cars have to cope with desert as well as the city life in the fast lane.  Drawings of various types of new model vehicles have been created from the land cruiser to the truck.
  • The latest smart phones are widely purchased by Qataris and of course contain Arabic numerals and language systems.
  • Homes owned by Qataris are normally large and have high walls surrounding them, whereas the migrant population tend to live in flats or smaller clusters of houses.

 cars, houses and phones

Discussions around the latest voting for newly adapted symbols.

Having finished the initial development of the new voting system it was time to trial it with the Mada team on 18th January. The view voters received looked similar to past views, but with only one set of symbols and a finally agreed version of the voting criteria, namely four choices on a scale of five in terms of acceptance plus a comments box.

Voting for an adapted symbol

Voting for an adapted symbol

voting criteria

Voting criteria



















The main comments from the voters regarding the system was that the images were not large enough, they wanted to have less clutter around the voting area and perhaps to be asked to guess the meaning of the symbol rather than to be given the text.  The latter would mean there would need to be a two fold process where the participants first see the image without the word (Guessabilty – Cairney and Sless (1982), Hanson and Hartzema (1995), Yovetich and Young (1998)  (Translucency – Haupt and Alant 2003, Evans et al 2006)) and then see the symbol with the word but help the graphic designer by saying where any issues lie with the imagery.  This could take rather too long in the time available, but will need to be considered.

On Sunday 18th and Monday 19th January members of the Arabic Symbol Dictionary team in Doha held the second round of voting sessions at the Mada Assistive Technology Centre with members of the AAC Forum.

Tullah takes up the reporting…

“We were joined by 13 voters in session 1 and 7 voters in session 2. These therapists represented centres including Hamad Medical Corporation Special Needs Centre, Mada Assistive Technology Center, Qatar Academy – special needs section, researchers from Qatar University working in the field of special needs, Child Development Centre and Shafallah special needs school. We had a range of opinions from males and females, Qataris and non-Qataris, Arabic speakers and non-Arabic speakers. Despite the mirage of opinions and perspectives showcased throughout the sessions, there were some general opinions that came up again and again. It is these opinions of the majority that we will utilize to make the second round of adaptations to the symbols.

“The prayer symbols”

This series of symbols have definitely been the topic of much discussion in our team internally and also at the voting sessions. The image below depicts the transitions the symbol for “Maghrib prayer” or “evening prayer” (just after sunset), has taken (and will continue to take) in order to produce a symbol which the majority of people will be happy to use. The position of the sun, the colour and contrast of the sky and mat, the body structure and depiction, the clothing and religious sensitivities have made this symbol evolve into many different forms.

A collection of prayer symbols

A collection of prayer symbols

Here are some comments from our reviewers that helped us make the modifications…

“The symbol with the person praying is more representative of prayers. Mosque symbol seems more generalized, representing faith, Islam”

“Change the color of the sun in the sunset picture to reflect the sunset”

“Increase the color contrast and the background color”

Here is one suggestion from our forum members of how to depict all the 5 prayers at different times of the day.

Praying at different times of day

Praying at different times of day

“To stick figure or not to stick figure”

Other discussions were surrounding the team’s choice to use only stick figures for verbs and adjectives. This would solve complexities within the Arabic language of having to draw many versions of the symbol to fulfill the requirements of the Arabic language i.e having female and male versions for single, dual, plural, past and present tense forms. The general consensus amongst voters was that some symbol users will prefer stick figures and some full prefer the coloured/more detailed version. In any case, users of the Arabic symbol dictionary will have access to all ARASAAC symbols which have stick and coloured symbols for all words and can simply make adjustments to the symbol based on their preferences.

“The significance of colour choice”

Other voters believed that the colour scheme of the clothing used in our new symbols needed to be more consistent. Culturally, most Qatari women wear a black Abaya (dress) and shayla/hijab (head cover) and men wear the thawb (white dress) with a Ghutra (white head piece) on their head and Iqal to keep it in place.

Qatari dress

Qatari dress

In many of our symbols this has been depicted as seen in the symbol below.

Different dress codes.

Symbol dress codes.






However, in some symbols coloured clothing was used for several reasons;

  • Younger symbol users are generally attracted to colours and have a tendency to want to use them more , this may also apply to those who have cognitive impairments (Stephenson, 2007)
  • Children in Qatar wear Western looking coloured clothing and coloured uniforms to school
  •  It allows for more detail to be seen
  • Arabic speaking countries aside from the gulf (which represent the vast majority of Arabs e.g Egypt, Syria, Iraq etc) wear coloured clothing and wearing all black is seen as depressing and for older women.

Our voters suggested that if we would like to make the symbols coloured then the symbols should reflect symbols of children with and without the shayla because children do not wear the shayla. However, if the symbol system is to be based on adults then the thawb + ghutra in white for male and abaya + shayla in black for female are necessary.

“Gestures- comprehendo or no comprehendo?”

Different gestures used to depict a concept was also a topic which facilitated a lot of discussion. The “yes” and “no” gestures were agreed not to have a universal indicator to depict these concepts. While an Arab may indicate a headshake as “no”, and an Indian might interpret this as “yes”.  What ARASAAC indicates as “thank you” (hand over chest) was said by our voters to have many different meanings in the Arab culture but did not in any case mean thank you.  The ARASAAC ‘thank you’ symbol (hand over chest) to them meant “count on me”/I’ll take care of it or “sorry” or “a woman’s gesture when she does not wish to shake hands with a male”.
“…and that’s a wrap”

Many of these very intriguing discussions took place and gave the Arabic Symbol Dictionary team lots to think about and our graphic designer, Dana a lot of work to do. It is amazing to see how one symbol can mean so many different things to so many people and such small details can be offensive to one ethnicity and small changes can be made to please another.

I am glad that our team has chosen a participatory approach as without our voters’ feedback this symbol dictionary would not fulfill their needs or the needs of symbol users in Qatar and the wider Arab world. It was reiterated time and time again by voters how much this symbol dictionary really is needed and how keen therapists are to get their hands on the final product.”  Amatullah Kadous


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