Tshoganetso*, 26 and hearing impaired, decides to heed the call to test for HIV and get his own Tebelopele Passport to Life. Because of his condition he has to bring along his able bodied friend Keletso*, who also happens to be a sign language expert, to help translate to him his HIV test results. Tshoganetso finds himself in this predicament because the counselor cannot communicate in sign language.
This is the unfortunate scenario most people with disabilities have to face because not much has been done to normalize their visits to health institutions.
“This is a clear violation of people’s right to privacy,” says Oreneile Matsetse, Public Relations Officer at Botswana Society for the Deaf. “Deaf people are forced to share their HIV status with a third party because health institutions do not offer sign language services.”
She says in most cases the deaf bring along a family member to a doctor or medical practitioner to assist but because of limited knowledge of sign language on the part of family members, the visit can end up proving futile due to communication breakdown.
“This sometimes leads to institutions calling us for assistance,” Matsetse says.
Dickinson Samaemo, Deputy Director at Thuso Rehabilitation Centre (TRC) based in Maun says there have been no specific measures from the Ministry of Health to address the situation. He says the involvement of a third party as an interpreter on visits to health institutions is just an improvisation on their part because they have run out of alternatives.
He says to make it easier for the deaf; they insist that the interpreter must also test for HIV at the same time to create some form of balance and fairness. Samaemo admits however that this is just a desperate move aimed at appeasing the deaf individual because the interpreter may well be aware of their own status before going for the test.
He says the only solution to the problem is for government and private institutions to train their voluntary testing and counseling staff on sign language to help eliminate third parties.
Tebelopele Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centre does not have any specific or structured programmes for the deaf and other physically /mentally impaired individuals in the provision of HIV Testing and Counselling services, says Marketing and Communications Manager Lame Ramokate. She says however that the Centre has had “a few” of their counsellors trained on basic sign language to equip them with basic communication skills.
“Tebelopele recognises the service provision challenges in offering HIV counselling and testing services to the deaf and other physically/mentally impaired. We are therefore exploring partnerships with organizations that advocate for people with disabilities to collaborate with and find better ways of addressing this gap,” Ramokate says.
A 2004 study by the World Bank and Yale University found that people with disabilities have HIV infection rates up to three times high than their able bodied counterparts because of their risks to physical abuse, isolation, general poverty and lack of access to services and information. According to the study, a few programs are designed to serve people with disabilities while few disability programs incorporate HIV services. Matsetse says their members face many other challenges across other institutions and the community.
“We have had cases where rape suspects get away because of communication breakdown. More often than not the deaf do not even know their basic rights because the environment they live in does not make it easy to know about these issues,” she said.
She says too often the barriers to justice faced by people with disabilities are even higher for the hearing impaired. Matsetse says the unwillingness of doctors, police and other authorities to learn sign language play a devastating role by deterring deaf people from pursuing cases. She says the community does not make life for the hearing impaired easier either.
“Whenever they communicate in sign language people often look at them as if they are crazy which leads to them feeling frustrated and dejected.”
Thuso Rehabilitation Center, an NGO operating in the North West Region of Botswana recently got over 1, 5 million Pula in grants from the European Union under the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) component. The TRC, whose mission is to improve the lives of People Living with Disabilities (PWDs), provides therapeutic treatment-rehabilitation engineering-vocational rehabilitation training-community based rehabilitation- and advocacy.
The director, Moses Kandovazu said it is the advocacy component under which the EIDHR project falls under. Under this project the TRC looks to implement activities for a project titled: Silent Voices of the Voiceless; Promotion of People with Disabilities’ (Minority) Rights Integration and Access to Justice.
“Violation of rights of PWDs is rampant issue because there is lack of adequate understanding of acts of rights violation in persons with disabilities,” Kandovazu said.
Botswana has yet to sign the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Kandovazu said until the convention is signed and domesticated, access to justice by PWDs will remain a far reached phenomenon because of gaps in the legal systems. TRC will host a round table discussion with various stakeholders at Maharajah Conference Centre on Tuesday, July 8th.
“A place at the table means that people with disabilities can make their voices heard and hopefully have their concerns addressed adequately,” Kandovazu said.