The Sunday Mail
Dr Christine Peta
THE aim of this article is to illuminate the fact that, in the absence of effective communication with them, deaf persons become more vulnerable to experiencing mental health challenges.
The marginalisation of deaf persons from everyday spaces begins in homes and spreads to other areas that include communities, education, healthcare and employment, resulting in their isolation.
The frustration experienced by deaf persons when hearing family, community members and professionals who are reluctant or are unable to use Sign Language when it is required or other relevant modes of communication that are commensurate with being deaf may result in people with hearing impairments experiencing mental health challenges.
Stigma and discrimination may also cause deaf persons to be depressed, anxious and experience insomnia.
Others may feel inferior.
Similarly, societal gender role expectations may cause some deaf men to experience mental health challenges due to difficulties they face in seeking to attain breadwinner status, because of limited educational and employment opportunities that are common among persons with disabilities, including deaf persons.
A vital quality of effective communication is an appreciation of the value of communication and its impact on the lives of people, including deaf persons, beginning from childhood. One of the major factors of healthy cognitive development of children who are deaf is communication in the family.
The nature of communication within a family contributes greatly towards the state of the mental health and well-being of a deaf child.
When deaf children are not understood, they are more likely to develop mental health challenges from a very early stage of their lives, compared to those who effectively communicate with their family members.
Delays in the development of language among deaf children may result in a serious lack of social skills, which, in turn, may negatively impact on their ability to form peer relationships.
Children with confirmed hearing loss must be enrolled for an early intervention programme before they reach the age of six months.
Considering that cochlear implantation enhances the psychosocial well-being of many deaf children, it is beneficial for rehabilitation professionals to encourage such a procedure, clearly outlining its advantages and disadvantages.
A multidisciplinary team that includes rehabilitation professionals must facilitate the appropriate development of social skills, as well as early development of suitable and optimal language, literacy and learning outcomes for deaf children.
If a deaf child is able to use Sign Language appropriately and adequately, the rate at which mental health challenges are likely to affect him or her would just be similar to that of the general population.
A study carried out in the United Kingdom revealed that the unavailability of health and rehabilitation staff that use Sign
Language results in situations where such personnel may generate healthcare records which indicate that “a full history has not been taken because the patient is deaf”.
Such professional incapacities create barriers for a deaf person in the hearing world, thus increasing feelings of discomfort and humiliation, which can be curtailed by upholding the right of the client to use a language of their choice.
On the other hand, complete reliance on lip-reading or note writing is not advisable; the risk is that people who read lips may not understand the full discussion and may resort to using guesswork to fill in the gaps, leading to gross errors.
A dependency on note writing alone is also not appropriate, considering that some deaf persons may have poor writing skills.
However, whilst the presence of a Sign Language interpreter throughout professional processes is recommended, it can also create problems when it comes to privacy.
With the aim of promoting the realisation of the rights of deaf persons to effective communication, the National Disability
Policy directs the recruitment of learners who are deaf across disciplines that include health and rehabilitation, at various levels, to allow the creation of an opportunity for trained deaf persons to bring positive change to various sectors. As such, this enhances sectoral sensitivity to the needs of deaf persons and avoids the occurrence of possible mental health challenges.
We should all seek to engage with deaf persons in a warm manner, which includes direct eye contact, as opposed to focusing on the accompanying individual.
Awareness of fatigue that arises from lip reading is important. The addition of clear visual elements such as gestures, drawings and many other visual aids could, therefore, go a long way in enhancing communication with deaf persons.
Ambiguous communication should be avoided at all costs. Speech should flow at a natural speed and volume while making use of simple and clear examples.
We all need to facilitate the voice of deaf persons in appropriate formats. This ensures that their voices can be heard, thus addressing the power imbalance with hearing family and community members, service providers and consumers in various contexts.
Such an approach guards against perpetuating the practice of constructing second-hand narratives that indirectly draw the concerns of deaf persons from the perspectives of parents, service providers and advocates, without consultation of deaf individuals.
By challenging such power and privilege practices, professionals across various sectors can create space in which deaf persons can directly contribute towards bringing their concerns from the periphery of society to the fore.
Rehabilitation in its fullest sense should, therefore, not only include medical care, but must also involve other practices such as vocational training and job placement, as well as counselling and promotion of access to the mainstream physical and social environment.
It, therefore, follows that a purely medical focus which ignores the broader community runs the risk of confining “challenges” to the individual and his or her limitations, ignoring the environmental context of the deaf person, to the detriment of his or her mental health and well-being.
*Dr Christine Peta is a disability, policy, international development and research expert, who is the national director of Disability Affairs in Zimbabwe. She can be contacted on: [email protected]