Zimbabwe Hospitals Introduce Sign Language for the Deaf and Care

It is just after dawn when Lincoln and Sekai Matongo arrive at the Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare. The young couple is nervous but excited: they are expecting their first baby and this is their first antenatal visit to the hospital complex. Lincoln, a technology consultant, has taken the day off work to be with Sekai. She is 12 weeks pregnant. But as the queues move and the other patients are seen one by one, the Matongos are kept waiting. Neither knows how to ask for help. Lincoln and Sekai are both deaf. At dusk, they head back to their house in Hatfield, a suburb two bus journeys and about 15km away in the south of Harare. “We sat on the hospital benches until everyone else had been served, except us,” Lincoln explains, communicating by furiously typing away on a cellphone. “I could see nurses and other hospital staff attending to the other patients but none [of them] tried to check with us.” In a country where even basic healthcare services are strained by hopelessly inadequate budgets, there is not enough help for patients with hearing difficulties. This means that many deaf patients are wrongly diagnosed and treated, admits Phillomina Chitando, the head of nursing services in Harare. “Due to information being communicated in formats they don’t understand, deaf people have remained unknowledgeable on health matters,” she says. “Providing deaf patients with health education, counselling or health instructions has been impossible.” One in 13 Zimbabweans, or 7% 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, which was a joint report by several government ministries and Unicef. Of the population with disabilities, about 110 000 people (12%) were deaf, according to the study. But disability advocacy groups, such as the Deaf Zimbabwe Trust, estimate the number could be nearly 300 000 if unreported cases are included, says the trust’s director, Barbara Nyangarai. And the country’s population has also grown to more than 15 million, according to World Bank data for 2015. Zimbabwe’s deaf community has been “invisible”, a 2015 baseline study by the Deaf Zimbabwe Trust found. This is because “much focus has been on other forms of disability that are more visible to the eye”. The study, which was meant to provide information for advocacy purposes, highlights the lack of access to health information by the deaf community. When asked about their understanding of a medical male circumcision drive aimed at protecting men from HIV infection, some participants answered: “I thought that my penis would be cut [off].”

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