A tense hush falls over the consulting room whenever Bryson Chimenya seeks medical attention at the country’s health facilities.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Zingwangwa Health Centre in Blantyre- located some five minutes away from his house in Zingwangwa Township- has become a destination so far away, courtesy of communication challenges.
“I hope I will now be able to go to Zingwangwa Health Centre with the assurance that I will be assisted,” Chimenya, speaking through interpreter Bruno Mwase, recently told a group of health workers in Blantyre.
Mwase, the interpreter, is the programme officer at Malawi National Association of the Deaf (Manad).
Even though Chimenya is the executive director at Manad- a not-so-ordinary position, he continues to face a horde of challenges, mainly bordering on people’s disregard for Sign Language.
His sentiments that he would like to one day go to his nearest health centre and access health services without facing communication gaps aptly summarises the challenges faced by deaf people in the country.
According to the 2008 Population and Housing Census, the country has 86,000 people with hearing challenges. Of the 86, 000, 5,000 are registered members of Manad, and benefit from its advocacy work in all the 30 districts of the country.
Chimenya says the platform in the country is strewn with huddles for deaf people. This means that, for an organisation like Manad- which was formed in 1992 and got registered under Trustees Incorporation Act in 1996- it is a sign that the road is still long and winding.
Against the odds
For a long time, deaf people in the country have been left behind in issues of national development.
This, according to one of the people who advocates for the rights of deaf people, Juliana Mwase, is because “Firstly, Deafness is an invisible disability. It is difficult to identify on sight unless one attempts to communicate with an affected person”.
This, she says, is exacerbated by the problem of communication break-down.
“Deaf people rely on Sign Language for communication but this Sign language is unpopular, unrecognized and under-developed, which puts the deaf at a disadvantage because Sign language is their only mode of communication,” she points out.
Paving the way
Despite these unfavourable conditions, the Manad programme officer says efforts are being made to level the playing field for deaf people in the country.
He cites the promotion of Sign Language as a means of communication and the implementation of income-generating projects for its members as some of the activities that have raised the status of deaf people.
He says increased corroboration with organizations such as the World Federation of the Deaf and the Federation of Disability Organisations in Malawi has also helped expose challenges encountered by the deaf in their daily endeavours.
“We want Malawi to be a society in which the deaf enjoy equal opportunities,” he says. “At the moment, we are implementing an HIV/Aids Awareness and Prevention Project after observing that deaf people have been facing challenges when they want to access Voluntary Counseling and Testing services,” he says.
He says, as part of the initiative, HIV and Aids counselors and other health workers have been sensitised with the aim of getting rid of the huddles so commonplace in the country.
Currently being implemented in the seven districts of Blantyre, Mangochi, Lilongwe, Ntchisi, Salima, Mzimba and Karonga, the National Aids Commission-funded initiative started in April this year and is expected to run for one year.
“Our aim is to produce HIV and Aids materials, conduct awareness campaigns among the deaf community and schools that accommodate deaf students, and train 60 medical workers in Sign Language. We are also training deaf peer educators,” he says.
One of the people who have acquired skills in Sign Language, Blantyre-based Robert Malitoni, equates being ignorant about Sign Language to “living in the dark”.
“Knowing Sign Language makes communication easy. Before I knew sign language, I thought I did not need it, but my view of life has changed now,” Malitoni says.
Malitoni says it does not make sense to live with deaf people and, yet, fail to understand them, something he says is tantamount to being there, yet so far away.
On his part, Chimenya hopes that these efforts will go a long way in increasing the deaf community’s access to essential services including medical care.
“After we trained 20 healthcare workers from Blantyre and Mangochi in Sign Language recently, I started to feel that I can now go to Zingwangwa Health Centre and enjoy access to medical attention like everyone else. With some of those trained coming from Zingwangwa (Health Centre), I feel I stand a better chance of being assisted,” Chimenya says.
Indeed, Chimenya hopes for an end to the days when deaf people could be so near, “yet, so far away”.