Disability and HIV – a sign of the times

Women who are disabled and HIV-positive bear a double burden. REGINA PASIPANODYA reports.

Sign language should be as important as teaching a child ABCs.

Sign language should be as important as teaching a child ABCs.

Gleams of inexplicable joy could be seen all over her face as she walked out of the New Start Centre that does HIV testing. Loveness*, a deaf and dumb youth, had just been told she was HIV positive. In the world of the deaf, anything “positive” means it must be good.

“The counsellor who advised me mouthed the words ‘you are positive’ as she smiled at me,” said Loveness, speaking in sign language. The 17-year-old vendor was not aware that the diagnosis was not really positive at all – it required thorough counselling, a balanced diet and lifetime anti-retroviral treatment. But no-one at the centre spoke sign language. So no-one was able to explain to her what she needs to do, and what she is up against.

Loveness’ case is a reminder of the double burden borne by women who are disabled and HIV positive. Communication impairments pose particular challenges for those who are HIV positive, because sign language remains such a rarity in Southern Africa.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), deafness and hearing loss affect over 5% of the world’s population – 360 million people worldwide have a disabling hearing loss. WHO defines hearing impairment is the inability to hear as well as someone with normal hearing. Hearing impaired people can be hard of hearing (HOH) or deaf.

Country-wide problem
If a person cannot hear at all, then they have deafness. In Loveness’s experience, no-one at the training centre could use sign language: a country-wide problem. It does not matter whether he/she speaks Shona or Ndebele, communication has to be in sign language. This is a common incident for most deaf people and is resulting in lack of health information for the deaf.

Sign language still needs to be prioritised in public institutions in many Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries.

In a recent drive, Deaf Zimbabwe Trust worked with Wilkins Hospital in Harare, to provide cervical cancer screening to 30 deaf women. Sister Moleen Muzarabani, a health care provider at the hospital, highlighted to the patients how cervical cancer is transmitted and the methods of prevention.
Sister Muzarabani encouraged deaf women to get screened as early as possible because early detection of cancer can save life. She also added that the best way to ensure access to information for everyone is to ensure that information is given in formats that take into account the information needs. These considerations need to be taken into account when preparing information for disabled persons.

Challenging
Sign language is the best way to communicate with people who are deaf. If patients like Loveness cannot effectively communicate with doctors, it becomes challenging for a deaf patient to practice her Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR).

Section 83 of the new Zimbabwean Constitution adopted in 2013 guarantees the rights of persons with disabilities to education, healthcare, and freedom from abuse.
According to the director of Deaf Women Included, Agnes Chindimba, sign language should be as important as teaching a child ABCs. “Charity begins at home” is a common saying that must be adopted by parents of deaf children.

Chindimba argues that parents of deaf children who do not use sign language must be charged with neglect. She also argues that sign language should be provided at schools. Presently 24 government schools and 60 council schools that have resource units that provide facilities for those with Hearing Impairments (HI).

The chairperson of the Zimbabwe Parliamentary caucus, Monica Mutsvangwa, said government mechanisms have been put in place to address disability dimensions of discrimination. Women like Loveness and several others await the implementation of these mechanisms.
(* not her real name. Regina Pasipanodya is a contributor to the Gender Links News Service that offers fresh views on every day news).

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