UP’s Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication assists speech-impaired teen to testify

Posted on August 26, 2020

The University of Pretoria’s Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (CAAC) recently assisted in a successful court case that not only brought justice for a young woman who was abused eight years ago, but may 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. Having never had the chance to attend school, she is also not literate.

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 local social worker and speech therapists as well as the National Prosecuting Authority, the CAAC facilitated the acquisition of an electronic symbol-based AAC system for the young woman. They developed a unique non-English, picture-based AAC vocabulary set to enable the young woman to give her testimony in court. They also trained the legal team on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), drawing on their expertise in training prosecutors, judges, and police officers in facilitating access to justice for persons with severe speech disorders.

“The case is hoped to 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.  “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).”

Witnesses and victims, as well as alleged perpetrators are required to testify “live” – that is, they may not use a pre-prepared statement. The lack of procedural precedents regarding communication forms other than speech and sign language is a major obstacle for people with communication disorders, and in many cases, justice is not even attempted. Prof Bornman, who trained the legal team on court adaptations for individuals using AAC, said that perpetrators often think that “the silent victim is the perfect victim”, which means that the perpetrators mistakenly think that the victims will not be able to disclose the abuse or testify in court as 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. Prof Bornman, the CAAC’s former director, has worked extensively in the promotion of access to justice for persons with severe communication disability, and has worked with lawyers, prosecutors, court intermediaries and police officers int his regard. She has been selected among the Mail & Guardian’s “Women Changing South Africa.” and is also the president elect of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication.

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.


Developing AAC systems in non-English language is a lengthy process that involves, among other things, analysing languages to generate vocabulary frequency lists, a symbol system to illustrate the core vocabulary and developing text-to-speech voices in the non-English South African languages.

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.

The design and development of AAC systems in various non-English South African languages, particularly African languages, is an urgent necessity.  “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, whose research interest lies in that area. 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. She has also collaborated with researchers from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Meraka Institute who have made synthetic voices in all 11 South African languages available. These developments have laid some of the groundwork for non-English AAC systems.   

- Author Prof Kerstin Tönsing and Prof Juan Bornman

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