The University of Pretoria’s Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (CAAC) recently achieved victory in a court case that not only brought justice for a young woman who was abused eight years ago, but also set a precedent to allow symbol-based court testaments by plaintiffs who are unable to communicate in any other way.
With the help of Kerstin Tönsing and Juan Bornman, both professors at the CAAC, a 15-year-old teenager with cerebral palsy finally saw justice. The young woman, who was sexually abused when she was seven years old, has a congenital disorder that affects muscle movement and coordination, effectively impairing her ability to talk, read and write.
Prosecutors felt her testimony was crucial to their case and, in 2017, approached the CAAC for assistance. Over the following three years, in collaboration with the National Prosecuting Authority, the CAAC trained prosecutors, magistrates, judges and police officers to work with augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. They eventually developed a unique non-English, picture-based AAC device to legitimately help witnesses testify in court cases.
“The case will set a legal precedent that will acknowledge the use of a graphic symbol-based system as an acceptable communication method when giving testimony in court,” said Prof Tönsing, who was an expert witness in the Upington Magistrates’ Court and is President of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. “This case could help to clarify one of the forms of ‘non-verbal expression’ that can be regarded as meeting the viva voce requirement of the Criminal Procedure Act (Section 161).”
Prior to this case, witnesses and victims, as well as alleged perpetrators, had to testify “live” and with their own words. This was a major obstacle for people with communication disorders, and in many cases, justice was not even attempted. For Prof Bornman, who trained the legal team on court adaptations for individuals using AAC, “the silent victim is the perfect victim”, which means very few of these cases make it to court. Indeed, from the start, police officers are often unable to take a statement, and the viva voce requirement makes it even more difficult to bring these cases to court.
The decision to allow the use of such devices in court is a decisive step towards the reasonable accommodation of people with disabilities and “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity”, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Despite South Africa’s constitutional commitment to 11 official languages, non-English speaking people with severe communication disabilities have long been marginalised by a lack of AAC systems in languages other than English. For those with impaired language development, their inability to properly communicate can lead to isolation, social marginalisation and a reduced quality of life. While AAC devices have been in development since the 1960s, most of them have been tailored to English.
Founded in 1990, the CAAC is the only unit of its kind in Africa, though its work is internationally recognised. The centre focuses on academic research, offers multi-professional postgraduate degrees, and is involved in community outreach by training parents and carers in AAC.
“Communication is intrinsic to our humanity, and augmentative and alternative communication helps us to connect with people who have complex communication needs,” says Prof Shakila Dada, Director of the CAAC. She further highlights the need to support those with complex communication needs, their families and their communication partners in order to enable communication in various environments and languages.
The centre has been developing AAC devices in non-English South African languages since 2011. It is a lengthy process that involves analysing languages to generate vocabulary frequency lists, a symbol system to illustrate the core vocabulary, and developing text-to-speech voices in non-English South African languages, among other things. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Meraka Institute helps to develop these voices with the CAAC and will continue to collaborate to develop more systems of this nature.
AAC systems are also crucial to providing medical care: Doctors Without Borders used these devices to help health care workers and volunteers communicate in the aftermath of Mozambique’s Cyclone Idai in 2019. They are also essential communication tools to help treat COVID-19 patients who are on ventilators.
Along with her colleagues and students, Prof Tönsing designs and develops AAC systems in various non-English South African languages, particularly African languages. “People with severe communication disabilities and who have an African language background typically face a double jeopardy: not only are they marginalised by their inability to use speech, but they are further marginalised by the lack of language-appropriate intervention opportunities and material,” says Prof Tönsing, who is among the women selected for the Mail & Guardian’s profile of Women Changing South Africa. Under her guidance, various master’s students have conducted vocabulary studies in isiZulu, Sepedi and Afrikaans, and have drawn up vocabulary frequency lists that can be used to develop future AAC systems.