Erna Alant

1998 Associate Laureate, Science & Health
South Africa, Born 1956

Project Goal

Help Africans with speech difficulties to expand their horizons

Location: South Africa

Breaking the Sound Barrier

Professor Alant was selected as an Associate Laureate in the 1998 Rolex Awards for her work in her native South Africa with children and adults with severe communication difficulties. Since then, her organization — the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (CAAC) — has increased in scope and profile. She hopes to expand it further.

"The greatest challenge is funding," Alant says. "As communication is not a visible disability, lack of communication is often not regarded as a main priority for funding. People who can’t communicate can’t represent themselves. Therefore they are often overlooked in relation to funding."

One of its Kind

Founded in 1990, the centre, which is the only one of its kind in Africa, helps provide a better life for children and adults who lack the power of speech because of accidents, health problems or congenital defects. Alant, an expert in communications pathology, aims, through a programme known as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), to help speech-impaired children and adults express themselves by using both "low-tech" devices, such as symbols and gestures, and "high-tech" means, such as computers and the Internet.

Alant points out that the programme is remarkably successful. She mentions as an example the case of Marius Oosthuizen, a 14-year-old boy who was unable to speak from birth. Faced with major difficulties in communicating, he was described several years ago as having a very limited learning ability. But, after being introduced to low-tech methods such as picture boards and then progressing to the use of digital speakers, Marius is now in a mainstream school — talking and literate.

Reaching Out

"This is very typical of the children we deal with," says Professor Alant. "People are so keen to write them off — the expectations are so low — but when they are given help you see the children lapping up the opportunities. They have been locked up in their bodies for so long. The progress is phenomenal."

Last year the centre received a prestigious award — for "exemplary communication" in South Africa and beyond — from the International Society for AAC (ISAAC).

Over the years, the centre has become increasingly involved in training teachers and parents to help children and adults who have complex communication difficulties. Although the main focus is on building an infrastructure in under-served urban areas, one of the centre’s main objectives has been to expand into rural areas where the needs are enormous.


"Getting to these isolated areas and providing the training is a very daunting task," Alant explains. As a way of addressing this, the centre is very involved in providing support for the national Association for People with Severe Communication Disorders. The centre now trains about 600 teachers and parents a year in the communities.

"This means we are reaching an average of 5,000 children with disabilities per annum," says Alant.

Building for the Future

She describes the rewards of her work as many and wide-ranging, but she stresses above all the impact the centre has had in training students "who through their own dedication and expertise are able to further expand the horizons for people with complex communication needs in the country".

The Rolex Associate Laureate Award has assisted greatly, Alant says, in creating awareness of the need for AAC and in developing the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication as an independent facility at the University of Pretoria.

Spreading the Word
While the main focus of the programme is South Africa, other southern Africa countries have been drawn in “to ensure that people with little or no speech get better self-representation and that communities are more aware of the rights of people with disabilities".

Further expansion is a priority. It is for this reason that Alant has taken on the co-chairmanship of the ISAAC Emerging Countries Committee which is building networks to provide AAC services to those affected by poverty. As a step towards raising awareness of the benefits of Augmentative and Alternative Communication, an African regional conference on the issue will be held in Johannesburg in 2004.

Other 1998 Associate Laureates

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