How UP’s Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is helping people with intellectual disabilities

Posted on April 07, 2021

Dr Kirsty Bastable, a postdoctoral fellow at the AAC, tells Tukkievaria more about the Centre’s recent work.

It is estimated that about four out of every 100 persons has an intellectual disability in South Africa.

An intellectual disability can make learning to read and write difficult, and due to these difficulties, people with intellectual disabilities are often treated differently. Specifically, those with intellectual disabilities could be given fewer opportunities to participate in everyday activities such as sports, social activities or learning new skills. The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, however, emphasises the rights of persons with disabilities to participate in all aspects of their lives and in decisions about their lives.

The month of March was designated as Intellectual Disability Awareness Month in South Africa. Researchers at the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) have conducted studies focusing on the participation of individuals with intellectual disabilities in collaboration with universities in Sweden and India. They found that children with intellectual disabilities participate less often and in fewer activities than their peers with typical development. They also found that the amount of support that caregivers of children with intellectual disabilities received affected how often the children were able to participate in activities.

There are different ways that we can support people with intellectual disabilities. One of these is by using AAC, which refers to a field of research and clinical practice aimed at assisting individuals with severe communication disabilities who struggle to express themselves adequately using speech and/or struggle to understand spoken language. AAC describes communication methods that either supplement the speech of such individuals or, for persons with severe communication disabilities, provide an alternative way of communicating. People with intellectual disabilities can use gestures, pictures, symbols or even devices like iPads or smartphones to improve their understanding, complete tasks independently and express themselves better.

One way we can use AAC to support people with intellectual disabilities is through the use of pictures. Pictures can help a person to understand what words mean, as they see the picture and hear the word at the same time. Pictures can also be used to break down an activity: a person is able to read the pictures, and the sequence can help them understand and remember the steps in activities such as washing dishes or preparing food.

This is a visual schedule that can be used to help a person remember each step needed to wash the dishes.

Symbols from

This is a visual schedule that can be used to help a person to follow a recipe: Symbols from

If a person with an intellectual disability has very little or no speech, we can provide them with pictures to point to instead of having to say a word. This is called a communication board. As with activities, the pictures on the communication board can help the person to understand what you are talking about and also help them express themselves.

Below is a communication board developed at UP’s Centre for AAC in association with UNICEF and Future Africa that can be used by a person who is visiting a hospital or doctor. By pointing to the pictures on the board, the person can answer questions and provide healthcare information. There are more options on the back of the board. For the full communication board, as well as other AAC resources, visit The board is available in six South African languages.

- Author Dr Kirsty Bastable, Post-doctoral fellow in the Centre for AAC at University of Pretoria

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