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Student wins national award for designing ‘gesture’ flashcards to overcome refugee language barrier

Published: 26 June 2023

  •   Awards
From left to right, Professor Helen Julia Minors, Richard Holmes and Professor Inna Birillo

Professor Helen Julia Minors, Richard Holmes and Professor Inna Birillo

Richard Holmes, a final year product design student at York St John University, has won Ingenuity Programme’s Impact Entrepreneur of the Year award for his groundbreaking project, Global Anthem.  

The award recognises Richard's innovation and dedication to designing a hand gesture flashcard system that facilitates effective communication for refugees and migrants facing language barriers.  

The  Ingenuity Programme, run by the University of Nottingham and sponsored by Nuffield Health, invites participants to focus on building stronger communities, improving health, and tackling climate change.  Competing against 16 other national finalists for a share of up to £75,000 of seed funding, Richard’s Global Anthem project impressed judges who also awarded him the Shakespeare Martineau Legal Prize (£2,000 of in-kind legal support provided by Shakespeare Martineau); and the Engineers in Business Prize (£1,000 provided by Engineers in Business Fellowship). In addition to also winning the Yorkshire and Humber Regional Champion award, Richard has achieved the highest number of awards ever won by a participant.  

Formerly a model-maker in the TV and film industry, Richard's journey to this remarkable accomplishment followed his decision to seek a new career after embarking on a product design course at York St John University. With financial assistance from an alumni-funded scholarship, Richard was able to invest in equipment and technology to support his studies.  

After supporting his Ukrainian friend Luda and her family to move to the UK at the start of the war, Richard realised the immense challenges faced by refugees and migrants in accessing essential support services. When he began volunteering at weekly Refugee Action York (RAY) drop-ins at York St John University, Richard encountered a growing number of Ukrainian families and other refugees facing significant obstacles to overcoming the language barrier. Using the product design skills and problem-solving mindset learned on his course, he embarked on a mission to bridge this gap by creating a universally understood system of intuitive hand gestures to convey phrases that articulate basic human needs related to food, health and welfare. It was important to design a system that needed no technology, could be a quick alternative to traditional language classes and promote social inclusion. 

Initially inspired by the power of music and dance to transcend language, Richard began using popular songs to develop recognisable hand gestures, naming the project Global Anthem. However, as he expanded his outreach to refugees from diverse backgrounds, he realised the need for universal gestures independent of any cultural or musical reference. Working closely with support staff at Refugee Action York and gathering feedback from service users representing over 40 nationalities, Richard developed a series of prototype flash cards, also referred to as alternative and augmentative communication (AAC). He also devised a method to deliver the system globally, without language constraints. 

John Williamson, Senior Project Worker at Refugee Action York, describes the impact of Richard’s project: 

“Richard has combined his volunteering with his university studies to design a welcome and communication pack to assist new arrivals and those who have an urgent need to communicate when language is a barrier. He has worked tirelessly to create resources that he has tested in a real-life environment with our service users at our language sessions. The progress has been exceptional for many of the people we work with, especially when they first arrive and are anxious or shy about their lack of language skills and about engaging in a social setting in a country with which they are not yet familiar or comfortable. 

Richard’s contribution goes beyond the actual resources though. His enthusiastic and infectious personality has helped our service users to feel welcome and safe in our environment, creating the conditions where progress can be made in learning. He helps those new arrivals get over their initial reluctance and offers easy to understand methods to allow them to see real progress.” 

Richard has since collaborated with members of the Police and other support services to test Global Anthem within the community. The impact of his project became evident when an Afghan woman, speaking a regional version of Pashto, was able to communicate her needs for the very first time by using the flash cards.  

He has also worked extensively with Professor Inna Birillo from the Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts (KNUKIM), who has visited York St John several times to supervise and guide the project. Professor Birillo tasked Richard to adapt his Global Anthem project to suit the current Ukrainian refugee crisis and provided guidance and creative oversight on implementing the adapted system.  

Global Anthem now has the potential to improve the personal circumstances of some of the 15 million Ukrainians who have been forced to leave their homes due to war. 

Upon news of winning the award, Richard Holmes said: 

“I’m blown away to have won not just one, but four awards at the national Ingenuity Competition. Global Anthem has grown from my final year degree project into a designed product that has the potential to support refugees”.  

Richard attributes the progress of his project to York St John University’s approach to inclusivity by hosting Refugee Action York drop-in sessions on campus. He also received extensive support from Professor Helen Julia Minors, Head of the School of Arts at York St John University, from Design and Production staff, and the Employability and Careers team. He adds:   

“It wouldn’t have been possible without the incredible collaboration with RAY volunteers, staff and service users, I can’t thank them enough. The regional Ingenuity pitching event was also hosted by York St John University and I’m grateful to Richard Jones, our Senior Student Success Adviser for all his support.  

I couldn’t have achieved this without the dedication and input from Professor Birillo and and Professor Minors, who have been such a great source of inspiration. I’m also fortunate that Vice Chancellor Professor Karen Bryan recognised the potential of the project and lent her support by connecting me with business development, mentoring, media production, technical and support staff. To have this level of support as an undergraduate is a true testament to the community at York St John University.   

‘I need help’ are 3 words that can change a life, ‘I understand’ are 2 words that can change the world. I now have one goal – to provide free Global Anthem packs to refugee support workers around the world.” 

Richard will be exhibiting his Global Anthem pack at the New Designers Show in London between from 5 to 8 July. The pack is already attracting funding from partners who can see its potential to facilitate engagement with refugee and migrant communities. Follow Richard’s journey on LinkedIn. 

Find out more about the Ingenuity Programme:  

See information about the product design course at York St John University 

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