Communication for all: Designing augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems for persons from minority language backgrounds

Posted on October 31, 2021

October is AAC awareness month. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems, strategies, tools, and techniques have assisted countless persons with severe communication disabilities in communicating and connecting with others. However, there has been little consideration for persons from minority language backgrounds. MsMothapo’s research focuses on developing an AAC system for Sepedi children to ensure their communication rights.


The capacity to communicate with others is one of humankind’s most fascinating and distinguishing characteristics. Communication disabilities have a profound and pervasive impact because of the centrality of communication to human existence. Children who experience complex communication needs (severe disorders or delays in speech and communication development) may be excluded from many social, recreational, and educational contexts. Sadly, poor educational outcomes, unemployment, reduced quality of life, and abuse and neglect are consequences of the exclusion  


AAC describes any device, system, or method that supplements or replaces an individual’s speech and assists them in communicating effectively. Aided AAC systems and devices include non-electronic (paper-based) and electronic (devices, applications, and software) resources that allow children with complex communication needs to select or compose messages for communication. When children are not yet literate, picture symbols often represent messages. Such picture-based AAC systems have been helpful to aid children with complex communication needs in developing functional communication skills, enabling them to participate more fully in their environments, contributing towards improved quality of life. While these positive outcomes should be celebrated and remembered, especially during AAC awareness month, access to appropriate AAC systems and devices for all children who may benefit from them is a far cry from reality. There are numerous and complex reasons for this. One contributing factor is that the design of AAC systems appropriate for persons from minority language backgrounds is lacking.  


There are between 6000 and 8000 languages spoken in the world today. Languages differ significantly in the number of speakers and geographical reach, but also in status. In South Africa and other postcolonial contexts, even languages with a large number of speakers often  have a lesser (minor) status, as they were historically marginalized and remain under-resourced.  In 1996 South Africa’s new Constitution gave official equal status to 11 languages. However, some languages may still be ‘more equal than others.’ In particular, African languages remain under-resourced in public use, education, and literature.  There is also a lack of computational resources to develop language technology (e.g., machine translation, spell checkers, and AAC technology). English, the first language of only 9.6% of the population, based on the 2011 census, remains the lingua franca, being widely used as a second language and common language of communication, and predominating the media, public sphere, and official arenas of government.


Like children with complex communication needs, children from minority language backgrounds also face challenges like exclusion from social and educational opportunities. In education, minority language speakers may underperform. Reduced competence in the language of tuition adds to the learning demands – while learning content, they are also leanring a language. Children with complex communication needs from minority language backgrounds face additional challenges, such as a lack of appropriate rehabilitation resources. Resources designed and standardized for children in affluent countries such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom are often applied to culturally and linguistically very different contexts. Without adaptations to ensure relevance and appropriateness, this may lead to further frustration and negative perceptions from all stakeholders involved.


Over the last 10 to 20 years, much has been done to make picture-based AAC systems publicly (commercially or freely) available in several majority languages, such as English, Spanish, and German. However, to date, none are available for the African languages of South Africa, which potentially limits the rights of children in need of AAC to express themselves and denies their right to appropriate high-quality healthcare and rehabilitation services.


To address this situation, I conducted a study as part of my MA degree at UP to determine a Sepedi core vocabulary list from language samples of Sepedi preschool children aged between five and six years during their regular preschool activities. These frequently and commonly used words can be used as a resource to select appropriate words for a Sepedi picture-based AAC system. However, this is only one possible resource to use in designing a picture-based Sepedi AAC system. During my PhD studies, I intend to use a Human-Centred Design approach to involve stakeholders (Sepedi speech therapists, special educators, persons using AAC, and caregivers of children using AAC) in the design process of a Sepedi picture-based AAC system.  HCD advocates for the active inclusion of product users and, or stakeholders in the design of such products. Therefore, stakeholders should participate in all phases of the design process: the initial information-gathering phase, the specification requirements of the product, the iterative prototyping stage, and the evaluation of the final product. In this way, I hope to produce a picture-based AAC system that is contextually, linguistically and culturally relevant to Sepedi children.


Although stakeholders’ involvement in AAC system design has long been advocated, there is little research on how this can be achieved.  By carefully registering the stakeholders’ participation in the design process, this project will hopefully contribute to this under-researched area. Credibility will be given to the slogan “Nothing about us without us”, which has a long-standing history in disability activism.  


- Author Ngwanamashiane Rahab Blondie Mothapo
Published by Heather Thuynsma

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