We have developed signals, words and sounds to communicate with each other; we have even developed ways of communicating with animals (pets) for example dogs and cats. Naturally we try to promote communication at all levels, which has made it possible for the development of sign language for those with hearing and speech impairment.
One of the things affecting the health delivery system in Zimbabwe is the communication with those with hearing and speech impairment. This might not be a Zimbabwean issue only but something affecting the whole global health village. Sign language was initially used by families to communicate with their relatives who had hearing and speech impairment, until awareness campaigns were organised to raise awareness within the global society of the existence of “seemingly silent people.” With lobbying from various organisations, sign language is now used in newscasts and some current affairs programmes on television in order to include those with hearing and speech impairment.
However, there are still many communication barriers, particularly in the health delivery system, where those with hearing and speech impairment have challenges in communicating with health personnel. According to statistics from World Health Organization there are 150 000 to 200 000 people who are hearing and speech impaired in Zimbabwe.
People with hearing and speech impairment find it extremely hard to access health services and information.
- Accessing health facilities – communication has become a major barrier for those with hearing and speech impairment access medical care. Because our medical staff are unable to communicate with them. There are few or no translators in our health facilities to assist and most medical practitioners prefer telephone appointments which complicates matte even further. Some practitioners don’t like to hire interpreters because they are expensive.
- Education – because their language is different from the formal languages we are used to, there is a need to educate people using sign language. Only a few people with hearing and speech impairment have access to formal educationin Zimbabwe, therefore they neither read nor write. There is also no sign language in the health institutions’ curriculum.
- Access to health information – there are no posters, pamphlets banners and leaflets in sign language to educate those affected. Health related adverts and programmes on television have no sign language and radio programmes concerning health issues are not accessible. Health awareness programmes, workshops, seminars and conferences are held without sign language interpreters to help those with hearing and speech impairment.
- Pregnant hearing and speech impaired mothers miss out on health related issues like PMTCT or PTCT and reproductive health. The teenagers and young adults have no access to reproductive health issues thus making them vulnerable to sexual abuse. They have difficulty in understanding the doses of the medication prescribed to them. This results in them taking incorrect doses, resulting in further damage. People with hearing and speech impairment seldom have a clear understanding of their diagnosis. There is no sign language specifically for medical terminology, which makes it even harder to communicate with the hearing and speech impaired.
There are a number of solutions we can implement to overcome these problems.
- Train more people in the health delivery system in sign language, so that each health institution will have at least 3 interpreters depending on the size of the institution and need, and at each training involve the hearing and speech impaired to facilitate better understanding of how they express certain symptoms.
- Develop posters, pamphlets, and leaflets with sign language content, or graphics to help the hearing and speech impaired.
- In public gatherings, like conferences and seminars, private interpreters should be hired, even though we have a critical shortage of such services.
- Sign language should be made a part of the health professional curriculum to facilitate communication.
- Sensitize all health professionals on the issues pertaining to hearing and speech impairment
- There is a sign language interpreting service available online called Sign Translate which might be of help to those with access to internet services.
There is a need to improve on communication barriers in our health delivery system. As health professionals we must try to do something to help people with hearing and speech impairment.