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‘How maternity staff turn deaf ears to our plight’

While women without disability find it difficult to access good healthcare services in public hospitals during pregnancy and delivery, women who are disabled/deaf face greater…

While women without disability find it difficult to access good healthcare services in public hospitals during pregnancy and delivery, women who are disabled/deaf face greater challenges. Because they cannot hear, it’s highly difficult to communicate with health personnel. With no sign language interpreters in hospitals, their fate and that of their unborn child is uncertain. Some of them share their experiences with Daily Trust Saturday.

When Hellen Beyioku-Alase became pregnant for her second baby, she prayed night and day for a safe delivery. As the day drew closer, her anxiety increased; mainly because she was deaf and did not know how to communicate to the medical personnel.

When the D-day came, she went to the hospital. Alase was in pain. She screamed, cried, groaned heavily. But her pain was increased because there was no one who could understand her.

“While I was lying down on the bed in the labour ward, the doctor was saying ‘madam push’, and I was just looking at him. I was just shouting because I was in serious pain. The nurses were hitting me, I did not know what they were saying. When I saw the doctor touch his head, that is when I understood that the baby’s head was coming out. And before you know it, my baby came out.  And then they had to stitch me when I did not have episiotomy. I ask them why they were doing that, and they said my baby’s head was big so she gave me a tear.”

Hellen Beyioku Alase, who is the Chairperson, Deaf Women Association of Nigeria (DWAN) Abuja Chapter, said many women who are deaf face similar challenge in hospitals in the FCT because there are no sign language interpreters.

Oladeji Oluwashola, another lady who is deaf would have lost her life if not for the timely intervention of a medical doctor.

She narrates her ordeal through an interpreter to Daily Trust Saturday.

“When I was three months pregnant, I registered for antenatal at the Wuse General Hospital, Abuja.  During antenatal, I would not hear what the nurses were saying. And some of the doctors find it difficult to communicate with me.

If I want to ask questions, they will say ‘don’t worry, when you come the next time’. I faced this until the seventh month of my pregnancy, when I met one doctor.”

Oluwashola said respite came for her when she found one Dr Ojo at the hospital who was very patient and friendly.

“When he (Dr Ojo) discovered I was deaf, he started giving me special attention. He finds time to sit with me, allows me to ask questions, and answers them patiently. I asked him questions by writing. Many doctors don’t have that patience. In one of the visits, he told me that I would have my baby through Caesarean section.  I asked him why, because I had my first baby normally? He said at 7 months, the baby was weighing 2.7kg so the weight was too much. Also, that my blood pressure was too high.”

She continues “When I attended the last ante-natal class, they found out that my blood pressure rose up to 200. I wanted to go home but the doctor said they’d have to do emergency CS. He insisted that I must stay back.”

The C-section was done successfully and the doctor told her that the baby would have died if they had not done the emergency CS.

“What I want government to do is to incorporate sign language interpreters in hospitals because there are things they teach during ante-natal that we do not hear, and those things are supposed to help us during pregnancy.  For instance, if I was told how to eat healthy, the weight of the baby would not have been too much. And then I’d have been able to monitor my BP,” Oluwashola said.

Alase said the sign language interpreter’s services in six selected government hospitals in the FCT which had been helpful to the deaf community stopped since 2017.

A midwife and reproductive health nurse at the Maitama General Hospital, Hajiya Maryam Salisu, said “Since the sign interpreters’ contract ended, it’s been difficult managing them.  When they come, we try to do what we can, and we take them to see the doctors ourselves. In the labour ward, it is usually difficult to communicate or interact with them and they take it that we are wicked. It is communication gap, coupled with the pain they feel.”

“If government can bring back the sign language interpreters to hospitals, it will go a long way to help us when they want to deliver or access medical care in the hospital,” Salisu said.

Responding to these issues, the Deputy Director Social Welfare, Social Welfare Secretariat of FCTA, Asabe Precious Umar, said there are challenges in the country regarding sign language interpreters.

“We need sign language interpreters everywhere, not only in the hospitals.  We need them in Churches, Mosque, public lectures and also when they are casting news.”

She said in March this year, the Deaf Women Association of Nigeria (DWAN) Exco came to social welfare office to let them know about this challenge.

“If only they come through the social welfare desk in all hospitals, their problem will be minimal. Now that we know, very soon something will be done.  We have social officers in all the 15 public hospitals in the FCT.  We are saying all the social workers should be trained in sign language because anyone can be on hospital shift any day.  We are concerned about the deaf community, not just the deaf women because the men go to the hospital too,” she explained.

The Desk Officer for Public Private Partnerships of the FCT Health Human Services Secretariat, Mrs. Bukola Azeez, said the secretariat in partnership with Ipas, an Non-Governmental Organisation, engaged some sign interpreters that were deployed to some of the hospitals, but that project has wound up.

“We are looking at a way of sustaining it. But one of the ways we have looked at is for some of our health workers, like doctors and nurses, to be trained in sign language.  She said the training which is sponsored by the US Embassy will commence in August this year.”

On how these women will cope before the health personnel are trained in August, Azeez said, “What we are asking is for them to go with a family member or a private interpreter to assist them to the hospital while government is working on getting interpreters that will help them.”

On if government’s help will reach all the public hospitals in the FCT, Azeez said that would have been the ideal situation but if not some hospitals in the FCT will be designated for them.

Dorathy Njemanze, a human rights activist, said in every general hospital, sign language interpreters should be present, “At least to aid a deaf patient to communicate with the doctors. That is why some of these people prefer to deliver in their places of worship because the hospitals are not tailored to meet their needs.”

In addition, Njemanze said the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) should make it mandatory for media houses to have sign languages interpreters in their stations before they are registered.

“Registration of media houses should include sign language interpreters so that the deaf community is carried along.”

The Vice President, National Association of Persons with Disability, Mube Awala Beatrice, said women living with disability are vulnerable to abuses, but with the president’s assent to the Discrimination Against Persons with disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018, most of these things will be checked.

“These deaf women are vulnerable to some of abuses because they cannot communicate effectively. There is gap in communication. They can’t understand what the people are saying, just as the people cannot do the sign language. So, we need sign language interpreters in the hospitals, police stations, market places, anything that has to do with the public,” she said.

Apart from having sign language interpreters in hospitals, Alase said DWAN got the sponsorship of the American Embassy for ‘Project Her’ which is aimed at training and building the capacity of nurses and doctors in sign language.

She said the Project Health, Empowerment and Rights (HER) for Deaf Women is a 12-month project on sexual and reproductive health rights focused on sensitisation of deaf women and girls and the training of healthcare providers on basic health sign language which is funded by the US embassy and will commence soon.

A representative of the US embassy from the Public Affairs Office, Sophie Savage, said Project HER demonstrates the US Government’s commitment to promoting capacity building for healthcare providers, as well as increased education for deaf women. She said women and girls with disabilities should not be left out of the conversation, like Alase’s experience in the labour room.


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