UP’s Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (CAAC) recently won a court case that not only brought justice for a young woman who was abused eight years ago, but also set a precedent that allows symbol-based court testimonies 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 subsequently approached the CAAC for assistance in 2017. 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.
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 sought.
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.