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Better access to health for people with disabilities

Written by Thandeka Ngobese
The Department of Health in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) has announced bold plans to train nurses, doctors and therapists in sign language. This is part of ensuring that people with disabilities have proper access to healthcare.

KZN Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo (right) and HOD Dr Sifiso Mtshali (left) with the sign language poster that will be displayed at the entrances of all hospitals across the province.

Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo told Vuk’uzenzele that people with disabilities should not have to compromise doctor-patient confidentiality by involving a third party to communicate their health needs with medical professionals.

MEC Dhlomo said the department already had 20 front line workers trained in basic sign language in five districts. These include media liaison officers, admitting clerks, porters and pharmacy assistants. 

“This is just the first phase of the training. We are still going to train our doctors, nurses, therapists and others within the next two years. We will soon be putting out a sign declaring our institutions as ‘Sign Language User Friendly’.

“Government’s vision of a long and healthy life for all includes people with disabilities. The reality of the matter is that people with disabilities have the same health needs as people without any disability,” said MEC Dhlomo.

He added that the mainstreaming of disability remains a huge challenge and disabled people are often marginalised, especially when it comes to finding jobs and accessing health services.

According to a Statistics South Africa report, the national disability prevalence rate is 7.5 per cent – this is based on Census 2011. KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), which is the province with the second largest population in the country, has a disability prevalence of 8.4 per cent.

MEC Dhlomo also observed that in the past, specialised services such as rehabilitation programmes were available mostly in urban areas. This meant that disabled people had to spend a night on hospital benches before being transported to a hospital in urban areas to receive rehabilitation services.

“The same torturous exercise would play itself out when they have to sit and wait for the rest of the people before being transported back to a rural hospital for another wait on a hospital bench.”

The situation is changing for the better in the rural areas of KZN, thanks to the deployment of therapists. 

“Currently, we have 153 permanently employed therapists as well as 171 community services therapists spread across facilities doing community outreach programmes. We also have teams in place responsible for identifying and assessing people with disabilities. They are also instrumental in finding suitable assistive devices.

“The department has established the Medical Orthotics and Prosthetics Training Project in partnership with the Durban University of Technology to train students to do measurements for assistive devices and to manufacture these devices,” said MEC Dhlomo.

He said that due to an increase in complications of diseases, there is a higher demand for disability services. This adds to the health burden in the province due to complications caused by HIV and AIDS drugs (ARVs), TB drugs, the astonishing rise in non-communicable diseases, complications related to aging  as well as disabilities caused by motor vehicle accidents.

The MEC urged healthcare professionals and organisations representing people with disabilities to work together, reminding them to find ways to deal with barriers that limit participation for disabled people.

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