Touch-sign language opens new world for disabled people

Onai Mupedzanuna shows off her knitting skills under the supervision of Ms Sithembile Marare, her teacher and mentor

Onai Mupedzanuna shows off her knitting skills under the supervision of Ms Sithembile Marare, her teacher and mentor

Walter Mswazie, Masvingo Correspondent
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 touch-sign 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 tactile-signing,” 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.


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