Junie* wakes up early in the morning. She’s ill and preparing for a doctor’s visit in one of the public hospitals.
When she arrives at 6.30am it’s overflowing with patients. By noon she becomes anxious, irritated and approaches the nurse seeking an explanation for the six-hour delay.
Only when the nurse explains that they have been calling out her name since early morning, does it strike the nurse that Junie is deaf. She apologises and Junie is booked to see the doctor. But another barrier confronts them: how will Junie communicate with the doctor?
Junie’s not alone. She’s one of many deaf people in Kenya who faces an uphill battle whenever they seek health care.
The biggest challenge is that deafness is an invisible disability – it’s not easy to identify a deaf person until you attempt to communicate with them.
In Kenya currently there’s no agreement on the number of deaf people. A 2007 census calculated 600,000 deaf Kenyans but this figure is quite conservative.
Access to health care for the deaf
Research shows that the communication problem starts at a young age. Most parents of the deaf are hearing and thus have no knowledge of Kenyan Sign Language at the same time they hide their deaf children and, as a result, they do not access sign language. In the long run, however, this makes it difficult for them to communicate their health needs.
Effective communication between health workers and deaf patients is critical. But within health facilities, doctors and nurses are ignorant about the needs of deaf people, particularly what’s needed to make it possible for them to communicate effectively.
Deaf patients face severe communication barriers when they access health services. This includes:
- language barrier. Deaf people in Kenya use Kenyan Sign Language but most of Kenya’s health workers have no knowledge of Kenyan Sign Language. This hinders effective communication.
Language barriers in health settings lead to poor understanding and compliance to instructions to prevent health conditions or follow treatment details.
- ignorance. And this is two fold. Firstly some deaf people are ignorant because they miss vital health information often communicated through public announcements on radio or TV. This means that many are ignorant on major health issues. Secondly hearing people harbour myths and stereotypes about deaf people ignorantly so.
The rights of deaf people
The rights of deaf people are enshrined both in international conventions as well as local Kenyan laws.
The 2010 Kenyan constitution recognises Kenyan Sign Language as a language for the deaf and also as and indigenous language and one of the languages of parliament.
It sets out the importance of interpreters for deaf people in Article 54. It states:
A person with a disability is entitled to use sign language, Braille and other appropriate means of communication and to access materials and devices to overcome constraints arising from the person’s disability.
Despite this protection for people with disabilities, their lives haven’t changed much.
According to Kenya’s disability act, there’s an obligation to provide deaf people with qualified interpreters in areas such as education, employment and health care.
Even with the existing laws in place there aren’t enough interpreters to make this a reality. Laws such as these need to be implemented better.
The way forward
There are ways around these challenges. The government of Kenya needs to address the issues for deaf people to have better access to health care and an improved quality of life. But what does Kenya need to do to make this a reality?
There should be massive awareness programmes to sensitise hearing people about deafness.
This could include training medical practitioners as well as the inclusion of basic Kenyan Sign Language in their curriculum.
Access to servicesincluding health care for deaf persons in Kenya hinges on how serious the country takes their language. Language shapes thoughts, emotions and also determines a person’s perception of reality. It also ensures that people can lead meaningful and healthy lives.
The government as a duty bearer has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of Kenyans who are deaf- the rights holders - by respecting their language.
*not her real name