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Primary counsellors trained in sign language

In their quest to end Aids by 2030 without leaving anyone behind, the National Aids Council (NAC) and the Health and Child Care ministry held the first- ever sign language and special needs training programme for primary counsellors in HIV and Aids. This follows realisation that there was an information gap in information dissemination to and among those with hearing impairments.

By Tadiwa Nyatanga-Pfupa

Some of the primary counsellors that were trained in sign language

The workshop, held in Bindura, saw 30 participants drawn from Mashonaland Central, Mashonaland West, Mashonaland East, Harare, Manicaland and Masvingo provinces being trained in categories of deafness, defining terms in sign language, health words, appropriate and inappropriate interaction with clients who cannot hear, as well as sign language sentence structure and simple gestures used by those with hearing impairments, among other topics.

Speaking during the workshop, national HIV and testing services training officer in the Health and Child Care ministry Beatrice Dupwa said counselors were finding it difficult to serve clients who could not understand each other.

“You find that the counsellor does not understand what the person with hearing and speech challenges is trying to put across and the counsellor cannot give out any information to that client, resulting in those with hearing impairments going without critical information that could save their lives,” she said.

NAC’s care, treatment and support coordinator Caroline Sirewu concurred with Dupwa.

“Our major aim is that we eliminate the occurrence of new HIV infections. We cannot achieve this if people with hearing and speech problems continue to lag behind in terms of HIV, and Aids information,” she said.

“We need to give them information on prevention of HIV, and if they are HIV-positive we equip them with information on how to take their medicines and what foods to take, among other things.”

Sirewu said it would be most ideal to train more primary counsellors, but at the moment the funding was not adequate.

One of the participants, Melody Manwa from Morgenster Mission in Masvingo, narrated the difficulties that they encounter as counsellors when they approach by clients who cannot hear and or talk . She spoke of one case where the client was suicidal after receiving his HIV results and there was nobody who could communicate with him to give him hope. The institution ended up looking for a member of the community who lived in a home where there was someone with a hearing impairment to assist with sign language.

“This is a difficult decision that we found ourselves taking because once we involve someone else who is not a counsellor, confidentiality is compromised,” Manwa said.
She hailed NAC and the Health and Child Care ministry for this initiative, which she believes would benefit both counsellors and clients.

One of the trainers from Sunrise Sign Language Academy, Chiedza Hukuimwe, who can neither hear nor speak, said she was happy to be training counsellors in sign language and would be happy to have other institutions such as banks training sign language to tellers.

“As young people, we learnt that when you are in a relationship and are about to get married, you should go for counselling and testing, but once we get there, the counsellors cannot address us,” she said.

“We also visit banks, we also go to church, but we do not get the help we need because of communication challenges. I hope that we will actually have people like me training as primary counsellors too.”

NAC has been working with several institutions that assist people living with disabilities, in the response to HIV.

NAC communications director Medelina Dube emphasised the need for information dissemination among those living with disabilities.

“We are looking at a group that is at greater risk of HIV because they are human, they fall in love and like everyone else, they end up engaging in sex among themselves and with people without disabilities,” she said.

“This is a group that faces double stigma if they contract HIV — the stigma of being disabled and the stigma of being HIV-positive, hence they need to be able to express themselves to anyone who they feel can help them and this person can be someone who is not deaf. We, therefore, need to train as many people as possible in sign language.”

Dube said people with hearing challenges also understand things differently from the rest of the population, hence the need for standardised sign language and intensive training of counsellors and all health personnel in sign language.

A case that indicates that deaf people understand issues differently is that of Dumiso Kurewa of Mutare who attends HIV and Aids lessons at Nzeve Deaf Children’s Centre. He said that due to the various signs used by different people to communicate, the issue of HIV treatment was so confusing that he ended up thinking that if the HIV virus is supressed with anti-retroviral treatment (ART), one could get the virus removed from their feet. He also used to think that if one is HIV-positive and stops taking drugs, the virus would go up to their head and affect the brains.

The major challenge regarding sign language is that it is so dynamic and diverse in different communities that deaf people end up getting the wrong information from different interpreters in different places.

Tadiwa Nyatanga-Pfupa is the NAC communications officer

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