As the whole country struggles to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a group of people which is most vulnerable, and it is with great sadness that very little has been done so far to seriously address the needs of the said group.
This group constitutes people with hearing impairments.
People with hearing impairments are exposed to serious risk because information on COVID-19 is not being presented in accessible formats to them.
Most of the members of this group use sign language to communicate.
Indeed, our national Constitution states that sign language is one of the sixteen officially recognised languages of Zimbabwe.
However, close to seven years after the constitution was adopted, many service providing institutions such as hospitals, courts and police stations to mention but a few, do not have sign language.
People with hearing impairments usually rely on personal friends to interpret for them and in some cases, they lose a lot of information as the interpreter chooses which information to give or not to give.
In some cases, information does not reach people with hearing impairments on time thereby making it difficult for them to react timeously.
For instance, most deaf people are vendors and when the security forces and the municipality police do their routine clamp down on vendors, people with hearing impairments are last to vacate their selling points because of the communication barrier between them and other vendors.
Once caught at their selling points, they are treated harshly as they are deemed stubborn, some are harassed whilst some lose their products.
In February a Masvingo man was severely assaulted by the police and was left injured because he failed to heed the signal to run for his life when others did.
Another case in point is that of a Norton man who used to conduct his business in Harare who was shot during the August 2018 and although he is recovering, he may never again be able to do business as he used to do before.
In the wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, people who are deaf and hearing impaired have not been given information and education on how the disease is spread, how it is prevented and related issues.
Thus, many such people still do not practice social distancing as is recommended.
Secondly, most of the people with hearing impairments survive on informal jobs such as vending. The current lock-down has left them without any source of livelihood and in many cases, left out in any program assisting vulnerable people with cash and food handouts.
It is important for both government and the broader society in general to note that a true fight against COVID-19 cannot be successful when people with hearing impairments are left behind.
It is therefore important that as a matter of urgency the government should do the following:
- Avail information on COVID-19 in sign language including information that is aired on national television
- Ensure that hospitals and all the other public institutions have sign language to ensure that persons with hearing impairments can get timely services
- Educate the public on the plight of people with hearing impairments on the issues of COVID-19
- Ensure that people with hearing impairments are assisted with food and cash to mitigate against the loss of sources of their livelihood.
Secretary for Disabilities and Special Needs