Touch-sign lan­guage opens new world for dis­abled peo­ple

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Feature/national News -

ONAI Mupedza­nuna (18) is a girl with mul­ti­ple phys­i­cal chal­lenges but de­spite her sit­u­a­tion, her adap­ta­tion to the en­vi­ron­ment is amaz­ing.

The Capota School of the Blind girl who comes from Chiredzi, is deaf and blind mak­ing her re­la­tion­ship with the en­vi­ron­ment dif­fi­cult.

Onai how­ever demon­strated to the na­tion dur­ing the na­tional dis­abil­ity expo held at the Civic Cen­tre in Masvingo re­cently that de­spite her con­di­tion, she can be pro­duc­tive and add im­pe­tus to the call for ben­e­fi­ci­a­tion and value ad­di­tion as es­poused by the Govern­ment’s eco­nomic blue print, Zim-As­set.

Through her men­tor and teacher Ms Sithem­bile Marare, Onai took ad­van­tage of the expo to show­case her knit­ting skills.

Her prod­ucts com­pris­ing scarfs, jer­seys, chair bags and door mats were on dis­play and the Zanu-PF Sec­re­tary for Peo­ple Liv­ing with Dis­abil­i­ties Cde Joshua Malinga could not hide his ex­cite­ment at this em­pow­er­ment.

He called on oth­ers liv­ing with dis­abil­i­ties to em­u­late Onai and demon­strate that in­deed dis­abil­ity does not mean in­abil­ity.

Ms Marare also demon­strated how Onai re­sponds to in­struc­tions us­ing touch-sign lan­guage as­sisted by ac­tive mo­tor senses.

Dur­ing the dis­play, Onai was also given the op­por­tu­nity to hand over gifts to dig­ni­taries at the expo, which she did much to the amaze­ment of the crowd as she can­not see or hear.

Af­ter be­ing handed over by her par­ents to the school at the age of nine in 2009, Onai has now mas­tered a newly in­vented and unique mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vel­oped by her teacher.

Ms Marare is a spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion teacher who has knowl­edge on deal­ing with peo­ple liv­ing with dis­abil­i­ties but said with Onai, she had to in­voke all the hid­den skills so that the girl could be able to re­late well with the en­vi­ron­ment.

She said to­gether with the school head­mas­ter Mr Sim­barashe Man­jere, they de­vised a mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion where they made use of her work­ing senses – which are the sense of touch and smell to com­mu­ni­cate with her. The lan­guage is called touch­sign lan­guage or tac­tile sign lan­guage.

Ms Marare said it was not easy im­ple­ment­ing the lan­guage tech­nique as it was the first time they had en­coun­tered such a unique sit­u­a­tion as Onai’s.

“Af­ter ac­cept­ing Onai to Capota School of the Blind, we had a chal­lenge on how we could help her com­mu­ni­cate. At first, just af­ter she came to the school, we used to pull her when­ever we wanted her to do cer­tain tasks and even when we felt she wanted to re­lieve her­self. We had to at­tempt us­ing all the best modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion un­til we set­tled for tac­tile­sign­ing,” said Ms Marare.

She said they tried to max­imise on Onai’s three ac­tive senses – that is the sense of touch, smell and taste to com­mu­ni­cate with her.

“Af­ter mak­ing use of her ac­tive senses, we started to see won­ders. We used a sign lan­guage dic­tio­nary and mod­i­fied it to in­clude touch-sign lan­guage or tac­tile sign lan­guage. We use the sense of touch to in­struct her to do some­thing but at first we used to pull her around even with­out her con­sent as we strug­gled to come up with a con­ve­nient mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” said Ms Marare.

She said Onai is now a mar­vel to watch as she does her knit­ting alone, some­times with­out be­ing in­structed on what to do and has pro­duced a lot of wares that are in­tended for sale so that she gets more re­sources to use.

Mr Man­jere said there are seven pupils at his school liv­ing with sim­i­lar con­di­tions but sin­gled out Onai as amaz­ing and unique in the way she has adapted to the en­vi­ron­ment.

“Capota School of the Blind is home to 171 pupils with dif­fer­ent dis­abil­i­ties. We had 200 but some pupils dropped out cit­ing lack of ca­pac­ity to pay school fees. They de­pended on Beam which was stopped by Govern­ment. Each pupil pays $300 per term,” said Mr Man­jere.

He said the school has six chil­dren, two girls and four boys, who have the same con­di­tion as Onai’s.

There are three classes for uniquely phys­i­cally chal­lenged chil­dren at the school that in­clude the deaf and blind, the mute and blind, deaf, blind and phys­i­cally hand­i­capped.

“Onai is unique as she has man­aged to mas­ter the touch-sign lan­guage or tac­tile sign lan­guage. We are not teach­ing th­ese pupils for­mal ed­u­ca­tion be­cause of their cog­ni­tive short­com­ings which makes it dif­fi­cult for them to cap­ture in­for­ma­tion of an aca­demic na­ture. It is against this back­ground that we have de­cided to equip them with var­i­ous skills like knit­ting and gar­den­ing. Those with­out ex­ten­sive phys­i­cal chal­lenges are taken through nor­mal school,” said Mr Man­jere.

He said that there are a num­ber of chal­lenges that come with work­ing with pupils with dis­abil­i­ties.

“The with­drawal of the Ba­sic Ed­u­ca­tion As­sis­tance Mo­d­ule (Beam) by Govern­ment saw some pupils drop­ping out of school. Some of the re­main­ing pupils are in ar­rears be­cause their par­ents can­not af­ford the fees,” said Mr Man­jere.

He said the other chal­lenge was that the school needs spe­cial de­vices for the dif­fer­ent dis­abil­i­ties and most of them were very ex­pen­sive while oth­ers could not be found in the coun­try and have to be im­ported.

Onai’s fa­ther Mr Tog­a­repi Mupedza­nuna (48) of Chiredzi said his daugh­ter was born deaf but was par­tially blind only for her vi­sion to dis­ap­pear af­ter an op­er­a­tion by doc­tors at Mor­gen­ster Mis­sion Hospi­tal.

The fa­ther of five said Onai, who is the third born, is a lovely girl.

“Onai is my lovely daugh­ter who I love more than my other able bod­ied chil­dren. I am a fa­ther of five but I feel as if I have one child, al­though it is not fair to her sib­lings who also love her. De­spite her com­pli­cated dis­abil­i­ties, the fam­ily in­ter­acts well with her as she mostly does her chores with­out get­ting as­sis­tance from any­one,” said Mr Mupedza­nuna.

“She is very tal­ented and has knit­ted a num­ber of jer­seys, scarfs and other ma­te­rial, cour­tesy of her teacher Ms Marare.”

Mr Mupedza­nuna, who is a pri­mary school head­mas­ter, said Onai’s sib­lings have also em­braced and ac­cepted her con­di­tion and no longer treat her as dis­abled, which has made her feel loved.

“In ac­tual fact, Onai was born par­tially blind and deaf. One of her eyes had to be op­er­ated at Mor­gen­ster Mis­sion Hospi­tal but the op­er­a­tion was not a suc­cess and she be­came blind. How­ever, the doc­tors had long told us that she had a grow­ing cataract in her eyes which would even­tu­ally make her blind. It is against this back­ground that we were not much stressed as a fam­ily since we had been fore­warned by the doc­tors,” he said.

Mr Mupedza­nuna said they vis­ited dif­fer­ent hos­pi­tals and doc­tors in the coun­try but Onai’s sit­u­a­tion did not im­prove.

He said he saw a Capota School of the Blind ad­ver­tise­ment in­di­cat­ing the school could take care of chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties like her daugh­ter and ap­plied.

Mr Mupedza­nuna made the ap­pli­ca­tion in 2007 but only got a re­sponse in 2009.

That is when Onai was ac­cepted for en­rol­ment at Capota School of the Blind in Zimuto com­mu­nal lands, Masvingo.

“I would like to thank the staff at Capota School of the Blind, es­pe­cially my daugh­ter‘s teacher Ms Marare and the head­mas­ter Mr Man­jere. Had we re­mained with her at home, we were not go­ing to wit­ness her amaz­ing skills .There is now a strong bond be­tween them and my daugh­ter that when we take Onai for hol­i­days, you can tell that she is miss­ing school and would not want to miss her knit­ting,” said Mr Mupedza­nuna.

An aca­demic and spe­cial needs ed­u­ca­tion lec­turer who is also Dean of Stu­dents at Zim­babwe Open Univer­sity (ZOU) Pro­fes­sor David Chakuchichi said when a fam­ily has a child or rel­a­tive who is deaf and blind, they should use the net strong sen­sory abil­ity of that in­di­vid­ual to com­mu­ni­cate.

He said chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties like Onai have great po­ten­tial to go through the for­mal chan­nel of ed­u­ca­tion as long as the school mas­ters the art of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the in­di­vid­ual.

He said such chil­dren needed to be trained to use their tac­tile senses ef­fec­tively so that they can re­late well with the en­vi­ron­ment.

Prof Chakuchichi un­der­scored the need to cre­ate a rap­port with the per­son in that con­di­tion so that she or he gets used to the lan­guage and be able to be pro­duc­tive through us­ing their tal­ent fully like in the case of Onai.

“We ex­pect such peo­ple to use hap­tic senses, which are the gen­eral sense of feel­ing and use kines­thetic sense of move­ment. You should pat the per­son on the back to in­struct them to do some­thing as a way of com­mu­ni­ca­tion like what Ms Marare has adopted when in­ter­act­ing with Onai. The tac­tile sign lan­guage im­proves with con­sis­tency,” he said.

“Once com­mu­ni­ca­tion is es­tab­lished, a deaf and blind child can un­dergo for­mal ed­u­ca­tion like the able bod­ied chil­dren with­out any chal­lenges and we en­cour­age Copota School of the Blind to take Onai through the same. It will be dif­fer­ent on lan­guage but the syl­labus will be the same and this is the same as teach­ing the vis­ually im­paired chil­dren.

“There is new tech­nol­ogy that helps such pupils to com­mu­ni­cate. We have vi­bra­tors that are put in the child’s pocket and when there are vis­i­tors at home, they press a but­ton at the gate and the gad­get vi­brates. Dur­ing my teach­ing prac­tice in Fin­land where I did my stud­ies, I was asked to teach pupils with such con­di­tions about wa­ter. I was sup­posed to teach them about hot and cold wa­ter and I would stretch their hands to feel or just pat them at the back sig­nalling the wa­ter is warm,” said Prof Chakuchichi.

Ac­cord­ing to re­search, per­sons who are deaf and blind de­pend on the good will and sen­si­tiv­ity of those around them to make the en­vi­ron­ment safe.

Be­havioural and emo­tional dif­fi­cul­ties of­ten ac­com­pany deaf-blind­ness and are nat­u­ral out­comes of the child’s in­abil­ity to un­der­stand and com­mu­ni­cate. – @wal­terbm­swazie

Onai Mupedza­nuna shows off her knit­ting skills un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Ms Sithem­bile Marare, her teacher and men­tor while an uniden­ti­fied man shows some of her fin­ished prod­ucts

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