Relationships – human connection – makes the world go round. For people with severe communication difficulties, making these connections is not always easy. Discrimination, stigma, and false perceptions by society often make it difficult for them to be seen, to be heard, and to have a chance to ‘just say hi.’
On 1 September (coinciding with UP’s Anti-Discrimination Week and Casual Day), the Piazza of the University of Pretoria was abuzz with interactions, as young adults with severe communication disabilities stepped out to connect with the campus community. For many students and staff this was the first time they interacted with someone using other methods of communication, such as iPads, laptops, and tablets, that make typed text audible through synthetic speech processors. It may also have been the first time they were confronted with questions such as – ‘Would you date someone with a disability?’ or ‘Do you park in parking bays designated to people with mobility needs?’ Lively interactions, laughter and comments such as ‘This has been life-changing.’ ‘I have a different view of people with disabilities now’ showed that a speech barrier can be overcome to make meaningful connections, share a moment, and enjoy each other’s humanity.
The young adults who interacted with the campus community on that day were the participants of the annual Fofa Communication Empowerment Training Programme of the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (CAAC) at the University of Pretoria. Fofa is the Sesotho word for 'to fly' or 'to soar'. Each year, young adults with severe communication disabilities from all over South Africa come together at the CAAC for a week of workshops, training and brainstorming around becoming empowered and contributing members of society, and stepping out as change agents into a world that is often quite hostile to those who have different abilities. The program is loosely based on the Augmentative Communication and Empowerment Supports (ACES) programme, developed by Prof Diane Bryen, at Temple University in Philadelphia, USA (Bryen, Sleseransky & Baker, 1995).
This year six young adults with communication disabilities, four returning participants of the programme and two mentors who were graduates from the programme, attended the week on campus. Eazy Mthombeni, a young man with cerebral palsy who uses a tablet to communicate, was so inspired by being challenged about his life goals at the Fofa week last year that he made contacts with a recruitment company, trained with them for two weeks (which meant catching a bus at 4:30AM every morning) and is now a proud employee of Truworths. His perseverance and passion is truly remarkable.
This year’s Fofa week included activities such as toastmaster’s training by Mr Ian Flint from Toastmaster’s South Africa, a Campus Tour presented by students from the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, and training on Crowd- funding and fundraising. Students from House Humanities assisted the participants to prepare for the ‘Making Connections’ event held on 1 September. Students from the Rag committee of Huis Maroela, together with graphic designers Olivia and Suzanne Loots assisted the participants to paint the “Graffiti Wall” with catchy slogans aimed at breaking the stigma around disability. Three UP students with disability also shared their experiences of studying at UP with the participants, and it was clear that their stories resonated with the young adults.
The CAAC would like to express their heartfelt thanks to everyone who contributed to the programme this year, and also to all those who stepped out to make a new connection. May your and our lives be the richer for it.
- Author Dr. Kerstin Tonsing