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11/05/2010

Deaf and on the margins of Ghanaian society

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Johnson Mahama, left, signs to Pius Abeviadey the Association for the Deaf office in Accra. Photo by Shawn Hayward.

By Shawn Hayward

Stephen Mensah says his hearing-impaired brother, Kofi, felt ill during Sunday church service last week. Kofi got progressively worse throughout the week until he lost consciousness on Thursday morning and his wife, who is also hearing-impaired, had to bring him to the hospital in Accra.

With Kofi unconscious and his wife unable to read or write, they needed someone who knew sign language to tell a doctor about Kofi's history of kidney and cardiovascular problems.

No one at the hospital knew sign language and Stephen says his 30-year-old brother died as a result.

"They should have had a person to sign at the hospital so they could get directly to the problem," he says.

Johnson Mahama was sad to hear that his friend Kofi died at a hospital last week and he was frustrated to learn that he died partly because of his disability. Mahama is project officer with the Ghana Association for the Deaf (GAD) and knew Kofi through his work.

Mahama lost his hearing when he was five due to cerebrospinal meningitis, a treatable disease. His parents lived in the rural north and didn't know how to recognize the symptoms, so now Mahama must read lips.

Prevention of diseases that cause deafness is important, but GAD focuses on protecting the rights of deaf people to live as well as anyone else. The challenge is convincing politicians and the public that more time and effort is needed to accommodate the special needs of the hearing impaired. The ultimate goal is preventing injustices like the one that befell Kofi Mensah.

Mahama says the government needs to recognize sign language as one of Ghana's official languages and place more importance on teaching sign language in school. The association is lobbying the University College of Education to increase the number of required training hours for teaching in sign language.

And it’s not only in hospitals that the deaf are being ostracized. Last month, the Ghanaian Statistical Service compiled a census of the entire nation, but the association's administration officer, Pius Abeviadey, says many deaf people missed their chance to be counted. The educational campaigns on Ghana Television (GTV) were presented in ethnic languages like Akan and Hausa but didn't include sign language, and many deaf people didn't know the census was even happening.

GAD made a presentation to Ghana's constitutional review commission in August, encouraging it to recognize sign language as an official language of Ghana and institutionalize it into the public service.

"Government should do things that would promote development of sustained sign language in the JSS and SSS," said Abeviadey, referring to junior secondary school and senior secondary school. "We should be sure that anyone who meets a deaf person would be able to communicate with that person somehow."

It's a lofty goal when even in Canada people who use sign language number just over 40,000 out of a population of 34 million, but after the death of Kofi Mensah it's hard to criticize Abeviadey's zeal to create a more accommodating Ghana for the hearing impaired.

"Currently you have people who can meet a deaf person and nothing can go on, just like the instance of Kofi Mensah," he says. "This was in Accra and it happened to be someone we know, but it's happening all over the place."

 

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