Employment of persons with severe communication disabilities

Posted on October 31, 2021


Employment rates of persons with disabilities in South Africa are shockingly low. Although unemployment rates are generally high for youth aged 15 to35 years (currently, 64.4%) https://tradingeconomics.com/south-africa/youth-unemployment-rate, unemployment rates for persons with disabilities are estimated to be as high as 80 to90%. This high prevalence is despite the government’s efforts through law and policies to facilitate the economic participation of persons with disabilities. These efforts include the implementation of the employment quota, which obligates private and public institutions to employ a 2% representation of employees with disabilities. Since its inception, both private and public institutions have dismally failed to reach the employment quota. The most recent Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) report (2019-2020) http://www.labour.gov.za/DocumentCenter/Reports/Annual%20Reports/Employment%20Equity/2019%20-2020/20thCEE_Report_.pdf reported once again a presentation of less than 1% in both sectors. This report does not indicate the employment of persons with severe disabilities, such as those presenting with severe communication disabilities, are. One can, however,  assume that this population is not represented in the sample. The Census report http://www.statssa.gov.za/?p=3180,  indicated that persons with severe disabilities are typically impacted to a greater extent by unemployment than those with other disabilities. In my PhD study (unpublished), I explored barriers to and facilitators of employment of persons with severe communication disabilities. Only four of the 24 interviewed participants were formally employed. However, these individuals did not hold full-time appointments, and their jobs lacked the necessary benefits such as a pension fund contribution and subsidized medical aid contributions.


Persons with severe communication disabilities do not use speech to communicate their daily needs and wants, and thoughts. In addition to their communication disability, they may present with multiple disabilities, including intellectual, physical, and medical disabilities (e.g., epilepsy). Therefore, persons with a severe communication disability include those with cerebral palsy (CP), Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and motor neuron disease (MND). Persons with severe communication disabilities present with disabilities that are heterogeneous. However, they all require augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) to communicate. In this article, I focus on the importance of AAC in employment for persons with severe communication disabilities.


As defined by the American Speech-Language Therapy Association of America, AAC refers to an area of research, clinical and educational practice. It involves compensating for temporary or permanent loss of function, which results in activity and participation limitation of those with severe communication disabilities https://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/aac/ Persons with severe communication disabilities use AAC to augment their limited verbal skills. Also, as an alternative to speech to communicate and boost spoken and written language skills and understanding. Therefore, they use augmentative and alternative strategies to communicate. AAC systems include the use of unaided AAC such as sign language, gestures, and vocalisations, and aided AAC such as pictures, communication boards, books, and communication devices (i.e., assistive technology such as IpadTM with AAC software). As a wide array of AAC systems are available, the AAC system used depends on the persons with severe communication disabilities’ cognitive, literacy and motor skills.


An individual must have the necessary qualifications, work-related skills such as reading and writing and being computer literate. Persons with severe communication disabilities often lack educational qualifications, literacy, and work-related skills. It places them at an increased disadvantage in accessing employment opportunities. AAC plays a crucial role in supporting the employment of persons with severe communication disabilities. AAC supports language development and communication skills. However, many persons with severe communication disabilities in South Africa do not have AAC technology as a result of, amongst others, the poor budget allocated to the health system for assistive technology such as AAC communication devices. To be able to use the AAC technology effectively, support is necessary from trained AAC professionals. However, research has shown the lack of knowledge and expertise  in AAC implementation by rehabilitation professionals and educators. The lack of professionals with AAC expertise is even more evident in rural parts of the country.  


AAC also supports literacy and vocational skills (e.g., computer skills) development. School education is required to acquire literacy and vocational skills. However, as reported by the Human Rights Watch (2014) https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/05/24/south-africa-children-disabilities-shortchanged in South Africa, special schools have been reported to lack the necessary adapted curriculum and learning material, assistive technology for education such as computers with adapted software, switches, and AAC systems.  Persons with severe communication disabilities present with multiple disabilities and require various accommodations. Therefore, they often do not attend school or receive any form of training. In 2016, the Department of Education reported that over half a million children with disabilities were not in school. A significant number of those children includes children with severe communication disabilities. The lack of school education and skills translates to poor future employment outcomes.


Lastly, AAC supports social interaction and facilitates independence. AAC technology enables employees with severe communication disabilities  to interact with their co-workers and employers and advocate for their rights within the workplace. They may, in other instances, require their AAC communication devices to complete their allocated job tasks. Again, support from trained professionals and the involvement of teachers in facilitating the social interaction of their learners with severe communication disabilities in school becomes imperative.


Ms. Constance Ntuli, an individual with a severe communication disability, tirelessly advocates for the implementation of AAC in schools and the intervention programmes offered. She is now employed and leads an independent life. Therefore, AAC plays a crucial role in preparing persons with severe communication disabilities for employment. October is AAC awareness month. As a speech-language therapist and researcher at the Centre for AAC (CAAC), I have trained with my colleagues, teachers, rehabilitation professions, disability advocates, and caregivers, on AAC implementation in their respective contexts. [email protected]. It is however, important that I highlight that mainstreaming the use of AAC requires a multipronged approach. This includes support from government in terms of funding and allocation of resources, availability of trained professionals, and informed and knowledgeable communities regarding AAC.




- Author Refilwe Morwane
Published by Heather Thuynsma

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