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COVID-19 Emergencies Response and the Deaf Community

COVID-19 Emergencies Response and the Deaf Community

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According to the Kenya National Population Census 2019, there are 153,381 Deaf people in Kenya aged above 5 years. The report further shows that most of the Deaf people (129,518) are in rural areas compared to urban areas (23,843).

Deafness is defined as an invisible disability that extends to inability of functional hearing which depends on visual communication including sign language, lip reading, reading and writing and auditory devices (Furth, 1996). According to the Deaf People and Human Right Report (2009), it is important to recognize the difference between; deaf, deaf and hearing impairment which over the years have been the most accepted terms. Deaf (with uppercase D) refers to a community that strongly share a language such as sign language and culture, while deaf (with lowercase d) refers to those with audiological condition of not hearing who are not recognized as part of Deaf community. Hard of Hearing is a group with mild to moderate hearing loss which does not have cultural affiliation with Deaf Community.

During the crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, the Deaf people, like most persons with disability are hard hit with inaccessible response systems, facilities and services due to communication barriers. For example, when the Ministry of Health is giving its daily briefings on the situation in Kenya with the pandemic and creating awareness on how to take precautions to halt the spread of the virus, without simple sign language interpretation it is difficult for the whole of Deaf community to follow. While there is translation to sign language on TV, the screen for the interpreter is not large enough, and the sign language is complicated to adequately reach the Deaf children.

Today social media has improved the ability of D/deaf people to integrate into an inclusive society. More D/deaf people are either communicating in written words or visual platforms where online chat rooms and social media platforms have become popular. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram are making it easier for D/deaf people to express themselves with videos, photos, posts and written word. Deaf people are often understood to be more direct due to the nature of their visually based sign language hence they are not able to rely on written statement such as the e-newspapers as it makes it difficult for them to follow.

Already, communication barrier is a challenge to deaf community when interacting with health care providers. For example, Mweri (2018) observes that access to quality health care in Kenya is very challenging for the Deaf because of communication barriers which tend to interfere with the right to access medical care. While Ralston Zazove and Corenflo (1996) found communication by signing as the best means of communication in medical setting, physicians who used sign language interpreters more frequently than other methods believed that much more time and effort were involved in caring for deaf than for hearing patients. At this time of the pandemic, health care workers should have basic aspects of Deaf culture to maintain direct contact with Deaf community. In general, health system should have adequate number of health care and medical workers with basic Kenyan sign language to safeguard privacy of Deaf patients.

In the COVID-19 period, health workers are wearing protective gear and masks that make lip reading impossible for Deaf people. Further, as observed by Owiti, (2020), there is no official sign for some equipment such as ventilators, which hinders communication using sign language. It is important therefore to encourage health care workers to wear transparent mask for visual communication for ease of lip reading.

The Ministry of Education has partnered with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation to broadcast radio programmes from Monday to Friday through Radio Taifa and English Service. Deaf children are not able to attend such classes. Further, they face challenges in understanding sign language by different interpreters on TV screens. This is because they are still very young and are continuing to learn Kenyan sign language, hence they would not follow even if there was only one interpreter for all the classes. Therefore, physical class tend to be the most preferred approach due to facial expression and repetitiveness of the teaching methods, and consistency of signs used by their teachers.

As much as the online learning in the universities favour majority of the students, a myriad of challenges face the Deaf students. Firstly, there is no guarantee of the availability of an interpreter hence the Deaf learner may not follow the lectures as effectively as other students. Secondly, Deaf students heavily rely on their fellow classmates for notes as it is impossible to write while concentrating on the lecture while it is being interpreted. Online classes deprive the Deaf of this benefit. The Deaf teachers/lecturers are not spared. They experience much more difficulty in managing and monitoring their students as the use of signs to control the class can be easily ignored by the learners. Deaf teachers must use hands on the deaf children to show signs. Thirdly, a deaf and blind person rely heavily on tactile sign language, which combine hands on body motions to express what the eyes and ear cannot detect, hence they cannot be done remotely because of social distancing expectation.

Access to financial support is vital to aid in reducing the risk of Deaf people contracting the virus. According to the Daily Nation Newspaper of 17th April 2020, the Government released Ksh 8.7 billion to the vulnerable people under the cash transfer programmes and additional 500 million for persons living with severe disabilities. This, however, depends on having information to map out vulnerable families and individuals and creating awareness on the expected use of the money received. Further, in rural areas, the public sensitization of community is needed for all people including chiefs, pastors, parents and county development officers to break cultural forbids that enable people to understand better the needs of the Deaf community.

Deaf community uses churches as a platform for socializing with other members and the social distancing is a real challenge. It is important to note that over 90% of the Deaf children are born to hearing parents who do not know the sign language. As a result, in most cases, Deaf people learn new things from the Deaf community while socializing and make them have a sense of belonging. Deaf community is highly collective and prefer to process information in groups so that they can discuss their opinions until they come to a full understanding of the topic. That said, strict adherence to guidelines need to be embraced and when that is done, Deaf interaction with ordinary face masks covering their mouth makes it impossible to communicate because they rely on facial gestures for communication.

Many Deaf people in Kenya work in SMEs – the worst hit economic sector due to the raging pandemic. Some of the Deaf owned businesses have been closed for good, and the return to normal operations is entirely elusive as the COVID-19 cases continue to surge. It is important to have a communication platform in getting messages to the Deaf on support, including stimulus package that the Government is providing to SMEs. Some Deaf people have ventured into innovative ideas, for example selling face masks that are specialized for lip reading. Face masks with a transparent polypyrene paper to allow deaf people communicate easily thus has boosted their personal incomes. Due to loss of jobs and incomes many deaf people have developed negative mental cases such as stress, anxiety, depression and even harbouring suicide thoughts. There is need to avail counselling psychologist to attend to these cases.

In conclusion, Kenyan Sign Language is required by law to enable access to information for all Deaf people, including emergency response approach to COVID-19. It is therefore important that sign language screen on TV is enlarged and simple sign language is used especially in creating awareness among the children. In addition, health workers need to have the basic sign language for privacy of Deaf people and in this time of pandemic wear transparent masks to visual communication in lip reading, and finally public sensitization of the deaf community is needed to all including chiefs, pastors, parents and community development officers. Further, is having proper communication platforms for Deaf people on government policy direction during the pandemic. Finally, increase societal awareness of the challenges faced by the Deaf people especially in the labour market.

Author: Dennis Njue, Deaf Intern, Productive Sector Department 

Photo: Dennis Njue spelling his name in Kenya Sign Language 

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