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Long road to sign language recognition

By Steven Mkweteza:

PROMISED CHANGE— Mutharika

He had the necessary qualifications, was bright and energetic.

He walked into the interview room and stood confidently looking at members of the panel.

For a moment, the chairperson wanted to order the second person who had simultaneously entered the room with Henry Chikwanje but, being a wise and seasoned chairperson of the interviewing panel, quickly dismissed the thought.

“Why have you come along with Chikwanje? We interview one person at a time,”

At that point, Chikwanje stretched his hands and moved them around for a second. Instantly, the second person spoke almost simultaneously.

“I am his sign language interpreter,” she said.

The panel was shocked before the reality struck them. Chikwanje was deaf. They let him proceed with the interview and, in the end, most of the members of the panel gave him A-plus. In an ideal situation, he had beaten almost every applicant. In a layman’s language he had passed the interview with flying colours.

It was never to be!

The representative of the company that had advertised the vacancy rejected him. “He will be a liability to us,” he said, adding “what would happen if the interpreter falls sick or is engaged elsewhere? In any case, the company will not benefit much from Chikwanje with that communication barrier”.

So, Chikwanje was dropped! Due to frustration, Chikwanje stays idle in his home village in Chikwawa District.

This is just one example of the devastating trauma that people with disability go through in the course of life.

Malawi National Association of the Deaf (Manad) Executive Director, Bryson Chimenya, says the situation could be reversed through sensitisation meetings, implementation of disability laws, upholding provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi and the creation of a conducive environment in the education sector, so that those with special needs can access education services without man-made hindrances.

Members of Parliament

The Republican Constitution and the Disability Act provides for support to persons with disability so that they can live to their full potential.

“However, lack of awareness has been one of the main challenges,” he says.

Chimenya laments the problems people with visual challenges face in public and other social settings.

He says the background of multiple and aggravated forms of discrimination and torture that the deaf face across the country have had a negative impact on realisation of goals such as Education for All which African leaders adopted in 2000.

Chimenya adds that the practice has led to an increase in the number of deaf people failing to access information due to lack of communication skills.

“It is an uphill task for the deaf to access business management skills, soft loans to start small-scale businesses, let alone coupons for the farm input subsidy programmes.

“The other issue is that there is no progress registered in construction of rehabilitation centres across the country,” Chimenya says.

According to Manad, there are over 80, 000 people with visual impairment in the country and, if the challenges faced by Chikwanje are a yardstick, then a good number of people in the country are at receiving end of development.

Established in 1990 with the vision of ensuring that the deaf are guaranteed full participation and equal opportunities in society, the association has been trying all it could to solve some of the social hiccups.

While manad’s scope is versatile, one key priority is lobbying for the recognition of the sign language as the official means of communication.

Disability expert Juliana Mwase says more needs to be done to level the playing field for people with disability, especially the deaf.

She, among other things, faults the regulatory framework.

Mwase cites the Disability Act, which, she says, does little to provide for rights of the deaf as it is supposed to deal with all problems that the disabled face, no matter how unique their disability is.

She adds that the vague disability act also poses challenges when it comes to disseminating messages on issues such as HIV and Aids.

“Nothing is being communicated to the deaf, the medium is wrong. Just watch television or listen to radios, how many of these have sign language interpreters? Yet, these are deemed to be effective communication models for almost every message,” Chimenya says.

Currently, according to Manad, the country has a total of seven sign language interpreters against the population of 17 million-plus. This he attributed this to lack motivation and inadequate output from training institutions, which are also not fully functional because of lack of adequate funding.

Maybe they can pin their hopes on the fact that, three years ago, State President Peter Mutharika promised that his government would make sure that it trains over 100 sign language interpreters in due course.

As Malawi joins the world in commemorating World Sign Language Day, which falls on September 23 every year, it will be the right time to walk the talk.

As they say, promising is one thing; doing is yet another.

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