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    The staff of this Zimbabwean hospital are learning sign language to help deaf patients


    The Wilkins Infectious Disease hospital in Harare, Zimbabwe is determined to bridge the gap between deaf people and access to good healthcare services by introducing sign language as a means of communication. So far, sign language has been taught to 21 staff members, including counselors, nurses, doctors, nurse aides, mortuary attendants, clerks and interns.

    This decisive measure will go a long way in ensuring that the deaf community become well informed on certain health matters which were not being communicated in a very comprehensible way.

    According to Disabled World, disabled people are estimated to make up 10 percent of the general African population, but possibly as high as 20 percent in the poorer regions. Also, the vast majority of Africans with disabilities are excluded from schools and opportunities to work. But not only are people living with disabilities plagued by the aforementioned ‘realities’ of impairment, a lot of deaf communities lack access to health information.

    In many cases they shy away from visiting health centres because they find it too hard to communicate with health workers and this could often lead to wrong diagnoses.”Due to information being communicated in formats they don’t understand, deaf people have remained unknowledgeable on health matters,” explained Phillomina Chitando, the Head of nursing services in Harare, Zimbabwe. “Providing deaf patients with health education, counselling or health instructions has been impossible,” she added.

    Another factor which was put into consideration is the fact that many deaf people aren’t educated and as such they are unable to understand any information in the media regarding health. Teaching medical staff how effectively use sign language is therefore a major stride in a country where not only is sign language not taught in schools, but such services are rarely available in health facilities.

    About one in 13 Zimbabweans of the total population of just over 13 million in 2012, had some form of disability, according to the national Living Conditions among Persons with Disability Survey 2013. Of the population with disabilities, about 110 000 people (12 percent) were deaf, according to the study.

    A number of advocacy groups for people with disabilities, such as the Deaf Zimbabwe Trust, have also stated that the number could be nearly 300 000 if unreported cases are included, says Barbara Nyangarai, Director, Deaf Zimbabwe Trust.

    Wilkins Infectious Disease hospital is working together with the Deaf Zimbabwe Trust to ensure the deaf can get proper medical treatment. Both organisations also spearhead a sign language club for staff in different departments of the hospital while providing cervical cancer screening to deaf women.

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