To celebrate World Down Syndrome Day we interviewed Singing Hands UK, a YouTube channel created by Suzanne and Tracey – parents of disabled children themselves – to help make signing more accessible. YouTube is a platform for inclusivity, where anyone can share their experiences and find a like-minded community, and Singing Hands share regular inclusive musical content using Makaton, (a sign system designed to support spoken language) which are watched by millions worldwide, promoting inclusion and encouraging as many as possible to learn to sign.

Suzanne’s original carpool karaoke style video sung to ‘A Thousand Years’ also inspired last year’s viral sensation, ’50 Mums’ (5.4 million views and counting), which was launched by charity Wouldn’t Change a Thing to celebrate children with Down’s Syndrome and is now regarded to be one of the most popular viral videos in history.

This year, the organisation are back with another incredible video sung to Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ which seeks to highlight the ways people with Down Syndrome of all ages achieve and enjoy life and in which Tracey’s son is one of the stars.

We interview Singing Hands for their view on accessible signing and World Down Syndrome Day.

How did Singing Hands UK come about? How did you grow your audience to an amazing 78K subscribers?

We set up our YouTube channel many years ago to share some of the early videos we’d made such as the trailers and a few sample songs from the DVDs we were making with the Makaton Charity.  Singing Hands videos teach viewers how to sign using Makaton through songs, stories and activities.

When we first started, we didn’t realise how important YouTube was going to be! Back then, we had a video camera (with tapes) and for non-techy people like us it was more difficult to make our own videos, so we really only had the professional ones we made available. However, with the advent of iPads, iPhones and simple editing packages even a novice can now have a go at creating their own videos to meet the needs of their subscribers – so we began to upload more frequently after that.

Our audience has grown because we know that our videos are used by so many families but also by schools, day centres, colleges and groups.  Although the Makaton signing, we use is UK-based, we know that we also get a big chunk of viewers overseas too.

As a channel, you forge links with other like-minded channels and comment/like their content. But the main reason our subscriber base has grown is because the Makaton signs we demonstrate on our channel are correct and can be trusted.  We are both Makaton Regional Tutors and we strive to demonstrate the signs in the best and clearest way for users. Our channel can be relied on by families & professionals to provide an accurate source of the signs. This way, they then know they are going to go on and teach the right signs to their families, students or other users.

Singing Hands shares inclusive musical content using Makaton. Can you explain how the sign system supports spoken language?

Makaton uses signs and symbols to help people communicate. It is designed to support the development of spoken language.  Makaton signs are based on the gestures used in BSL (British Sign Language – the language of the Deaf community). However, unlike BSL, Makaton signs are used in conjunction with speech at all times and in English grammatical word order. So, when we speak, we say the sentence, but we will add a sign or two (sometimes more) to augment (i.e. support) the spoken words.  Essentially, we are making our speech more visual for the person with whom we are communicating. Signs last longer than speech which is so fleeting, so this gives the other person a better way to understand what you are saying to them.

With Makaton, children and adults can communicate using signs and symbols. Many people then drop the signs or symbols naturally at their own pace, as they develop speech. Makaton is extremely flexible as it can be personalised to the individual’s needs and used at a level that is suitable for them.

How do you feel Singing Hands makes signing more accessible?

Learning to sign is a great skill but essentially, it’s a #useitorloseit skill.  Lots of people go on training courses and learn, but unless they use it daily and practise their signing, they will forget it.  Therefore, Singing Hands provides a practical, fun and child-centred way to use the signs in songs and stories and thereby makes it more accessible for users.

We are also both parents of disabled children ourselves.  Although we learnt our signing on formal courses, we then came home to our own children and instinctively knew that we couldn’t ‘teach’ our children signing in a formal way.  It must be more organic and fun. Singing and signing rhymes, signing stories and playing games using signs delivers learning but in a way that is motivating for the child/young person.

Did you think your carpool video ‘A Thousand Years’ would inspire so many people? 

Not in a million years, let alone a thousand!  We’d started our Carpool Karaoke series just for a bit of fun – usually involving silly wigs and inflatable instruments.  However, Ella (Suzanne’s daughter) suggested signing Christina Perri’s Twilight song ‘A Thousand Years’ as she loved signing it herself.  As Tracy was off work with a shoulder injury in Jan 2018, Ella and I just got in the car and signed the song without thinking it would be any more than just another upload to our Singing Hands UK channel.  

It’s obviously a love song, but I guess the fact that we signed it as mother and child with the lyrics about loving someone for a 1000 years really had a greater impact than we’d realised.  

Ella and I got lots of lovely feedback from people but then it was coming up to #WDSD18 and we received a private FB message from Jamie McCallum at Wouldn’t Change a Thing with the link to a draft video of some Mums and their children signing with their own children to the same song.  We were blown away. The first draft didn’t even have 50 Mums/50 kids, but you just knew it would strike a chord with the DS community. However, none of us could have anticipated to what level that would be.

Their video has had over 350M views and their Wouldn’t Change a Thing charity has been formed following the success of that video.  We feel proud of the fact we inspired this lovely group and helped them along the way. We have since collaborated on several projects and the families are all now friends of ours.

One of the most striking things however was how far the video reached – a dance teacher shared a video not so long ago from the Polynesian Island of Tuvalu which is geographically about as remote as it gets.  And sure enough, there was a dance group singing & signing 1000 years so that they could include a little dancer with Down Syndrome in their group. They’d learnt the song and signs from our Singing Hands YouTube channel.  Amazing!

Are you excited for the new video ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ launched by Wouldn’t Change a Thing? Do you feel your video sparked a positive change for celebrating children with Down’s Syndrome?

Yes, we are very excited for #WCATs new video – it marks a departure from their fully-signed videos as this one only signs the chorus.  But for this campaign, the group wanted a different feel – one where both little children and young adults could showcase all the things that someone with DS can do when given the right support and opportunities.

Is Singing Hands UK for users of all ages? What content do you cover for your subscribers?

Absolutely!  When we started out, our prerogative was to create material for young children because we were mothers of young children ourselves who needed to learn to sign.  Ella and Miles are now 19, but back then there wasn’t any Mr Tumble or Something Special, there was just one Makaton VHS video of 12 or 13 rhymes performed by the wonderful Dave Benson-Phillips.  There wasn’t even any YouTube for us to learn from either!

We just felt that this video was not enough for our children or other children – we needed more resources to be able to encourage them to learn more signing.   So initially that was our focus and we have now created three nursery rhymes DVDs in association with the Makaton Charity – a selection of these EY songs are on our channel along with other rhymes specifically for our channel.

This then led to Christmas signed songs – so we have added festive songs to our channel and created two Christmas DVDs.  Christmas singing and signing is for all ages.

However, we then realised that there was this musical/signing ‘drop off’ where there wasn’t any content for older children & young people. It was all nursery rhymes.  So, we started to add signs to classic pop songs and has resulted in us producing the first ever Makaton Pop DVD in association with the Makaton Charity.

Do you feel Singing Hands promotes inclusion and encourages more people to learn to sign? 

Definitely – our goal was not just to teach our own children to sign and other disabled children how to sign.  The goal has always been to help show other non-disabled children & adults how to sign too. The more people who can learn to sign, the better.  This will help to break down communication barriers between people and foster inclusion. Also – as we very well know – people LOVE to sing and sign.  It makes music more visual and engaging and the audience can copy and participate and learn kinaesthetically. People find learning signs to familiar songs helps develop their signing fluency and it gives them confidence to learn and practise their signs.  It’s a highly motivating way to learn how to sign.

As parents of disabled children do you feel your experience is able to positively encourage other parents to learn to sign?

We hope so.  The world is a different place to where we were in 1999.  Back then when we mentioned ‘Makaton’ or ‘signing’ – people only knew about it in terms of the deaf community and there seemed to be this constant fear that it would somehow stop or delay our children’s language development.  

Tracy’s son has Down’s Syndrome so she was often asked why she was signing with him if he could hear – there was not the awareness of how this form of visual communication can support those with learning disabilities.  Obviously, those in SEN settings knew this, but not out there in the mainstream community. Ella had a tracheostomy until she was 3.5 years so we couldn’t have coped without signing – and when her tube came out, all her speech was in there waiting to be released.  She never made a sound whilst the tube was in situ but she hasn’t stopped talking since. She was my proof that signing does not inhibit speech. In fact, it actively encouraged her language development and ensured that she didn’t suffer any frustration due to an inability to speak.

We think our channel embraces signing in a fun way – parents want to do fun things with their children.  We hope that our channel encourages parents to come and learn with us and then enjoy the songs and signs at home with their own families and community.