'My disabled granddaughter’s rapist was convicted after she was given a voice through new science'

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(Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Image)
(Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Image)

She’d always battled to understand her granddaughter’s impaired speech.

Having suffered a horrific fall when she was just a baby, the little girl sustained damage to her spine, brain and back. The fall left *Milly Farmer’s granddaughter *Abby paralysed, and her injuries affected her ability to communicate properly. 

For years Abby harboured a deep secret but simply couldn’t find the words to tell her family. “It was until one day when she was sitting in her wheelchair and her mother realised something was wrong,” Milly says.

Before being placed into her grandmothers’ care, Abby had lived with her mother and was sexually abused by a relative’s boyfriend. She was six years old at the time.

“Even though she struggled to articulate what exactly happened to her, she told her mother what the relative’s boyfriend had done to her and that’s when the police were alerted.”

A suspect was arrested but a lack of evidence coupled with Abby’s trouble speaking saw the alleged rapist walk away scot-free. “We were devastated,” Milly tells YOU.

But now, thanks to a ground-breaking new method that gives a voice to the voiceless, Abby’s rapist is behind bars.

The social worker on Abby’s case refused to give up until justice was served, says Milly, who became Abby’s legal guardian since 2012. She put the family in touch with Professor Juan Bornman, from the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).

(Photo: Supplied)
Prof. Dr Juan Bornman (Photo: Supplied)

Bornman, along with her colleague Prof Kerstin Tönsing, has long been interested in the abuse of persons with disabilities. In 2011 they published an academic paper highlighting how the justice system can be improved to help those with disabilities, and from there they developed a set of tools to help those with little to no speech or writing abilities.

“The lack of procedural precedents regarding communication forms other than speech and sign language is a major obstacle for people with severe communication disorders,” Prof Bornman says.

“In many cases, their cases don’t even make it to court, and if it does, testifying is extremely challenging.”

According to Prof Bornman who is also the president of the International Association for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC), “Perpetrators often think the silent victim is the perfect victim.”

But thanks to the communication method she helped develop – people like Abby are now being given a chance to testify in court. Abby’s case was reopened in 2017 and the National Prosecuting Authority in collaboration with Prof Bornman and Prof Tönsing facilitated workshops with speech therapists and the legal team on AAC to help win the case.

Through the use of AAC, Bornman and her team developed a special communication system for Abby which was colour coded and not text-based because she was illiterate. The system also had a voice output – by pressing on a specific symbol, the machine would say the word.

As a result of the supporting AAC system, Abby was able to successfully testify in court. On 26 August, her rapist was found guilty of sexually abusing her and sentenced to eight years in jail. Abby was praised as a reliable witness, Bornman says. “Her testimony was crucial in this conviction,” she adds.

It’s taken 10 years for Abby’s story to be heard and the family is happy they can put the court case behind them.

“We weren’t too happy he was only given eight years but it’s better than nothing. She still gets nightmares about what happened, but its knowing justice was served that puts us at peace, Milly says.

Abby is now 15 and attends regular physio and speech therapy sessions and Milly is looking forward to seeing her heal and grow. “Prof Bornman and her team allowed my granddaughter to tell her side of the story,” she says.

“I hope they’ll continue to help others as well.”

*Not their real names

A new way of testifying

Judge Mohamed Jooma from the South African Judicial Education Institute says AAC – a set of tools specifically developed to assist those with little to no speech or writing abilities – helps to ensure abuse survivors with disabilities are given a fair chance in court.

“We do not usually specialise in this kind of advanced technology and so being able to collaborate with Prof Bornman has given us a different perspective,” Judge Jooma tells YOU.

“Usually we rely on experts like speech therapists to analyse the evidence but in this case we’ve also learnt how to do it and that has been incredibly helpful.” 

The basic communication board to disclose abuse – as a first step- are available for free on the website for the University of Pretoria’s AAC centre.

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