Finding a Voice


When Erna Alant opened a centre to help speech-impaired children and adults express themselves non-verbally she began to change lives

Among children with severe disabilities in South Africa's capital city of Pretoria, more than a third lack the power of :normal speech, while in rural areas, where overall education lags well behind the cities, the percentage of speech-impaired children is higher. The waste in terms of the quality of life is incalculable and unnecessary in the view of Erna Alant, a 44-year-old professor of communication pathology at the University of Pretoria and founder of a centre specialising in promoting non-oral communication methods among the speech-impaired.

Beyond her normal duties as a full-time university professor, Alant has spent the past 20 years training and encouraging parents, teachers, and aides to people with disabilities to help speech-impaired children and adults express themselves non-verbally. Such strategies are known as "Augmentative and Alternative Communication," or AAC, and involve using symbols, drawings, gestures, and even computers as both aids and substitutes for normal speech.

The causes of severe speech impairment are numerous and varied, including stroke, brain injury, Parkinson's disease, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and genetic defects. "AAC can help nearly all of them," Alant declares. "The only requirement is the ability to recognise that a particular object or symbol can be used to communicate something."

In 1990, Alant founded the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (CAAC), the only institution of its kind in Africa. To date, she and her ten staff have trained close to 3,000 health care and education professionals and assistants to apply AAC techniques to human communication problems.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

In 1995 Alant and the Centre received national acclaim in the form of the highly prized Education Africa Presidential Award for People with Special Needs. Three years later, Alant was singled out as an Associate Laureate in the 1998 Rolex Awards for Enterprise for her project to expand the Centre's programme beyond the confines of South African's cities to the desperately poor rural areas of the country.

"The need is tremendous," she says. Millions of disabled South Africans receive no assistance of any kind, either private or governmental. A great number of those disabled are speech-impaired, and most live outside the cities. If we can reach even a portion of them we can make an enormous difference."

Thanks partly to the Rolex Award funding, Alant has attained her long-cherished goal of reaching out to this much-neglected and needy segment of the population. She has accomplished this by making training accessible to those in the rural regions.

"The most significant development of the past two years has been the introduction of a professional certification programme through distance education," comments Alant. "Requests for training have risen dramatically and by training hundreds more therapists, teachers, parents, nurses and social workers in AAC methods, we are finally able to reach the speech-impaired in outlying areas." In addition to creating written course materials, Alant and her team have developed multimedia tools, including an introductory CD-ROM on AAC techniques. …

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