Using illustrations of South African Sign Language instead of speech bubbles, a new comic book is reaching out to the deaf community with messages about HIV and AIDS, sexual violence and sexual rights.

The 14-page ‘Are Your Rights Respected?’ follows a group of friends attending deaf school as they learn about their sexuality, how to protect themselves from HIV, their rights to health and education, and how to deal with sexual abuse.

Judge Edwin Cameron, a prominent HIV/AIDS lobbyist, commented at the opening of an exhibition of artwork from the comic book on Saturday that deaf people were still “a politically, linguistically, socially and economically marginalised group”, and information and education on HIV and AIDS, sexuality and sexual diversity largely bypassed the deaf community.

“Deaf people are dying without HIV testing or treatment, family or community support,” he said.

The comic book developed by the Gay and Lesbian Archives (GALA) – an independent project of the South African History Archives, located at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg – and funded by the Foundation for Human Rights, will be distributed to deaf schools and communities throughout the country.

Despite being one of the largest disability groups in South Africa, according to GALA’s deaf outreach coordinator, John Meletse, “Deaf people are so ignorant about HIV issues.”

Speaking through a sign-language interpreter, he said, “They are dying and they don’t know why. We realised that the department of health doesn’t have programmes specifically targeting deaf people with HIV messages, so I started going into communities and doing education.”

From his conversations with young deaf people, Meletse learned that what little education they had received about HIV and AIDS had not been developed with deaf people in mind and they had difficulty relating to it. “A lot of them think of HIV as a death sentence – they don’t understand the difference between HIV and AIDS.”

Approximately 500,000 deaf people communicate using South African Sign Language (SASL) but few health workers have received training in it. “You see nice, beautiful posters in sign language at clinics but none of the staff know any sign language,” he said. “The first thing they’ll say is, ‘Shame, he’s deaf’, and that’s very demotivating, because the last thing you want is to be patronised.”

Meletse said his own experience of struggling to access HIV testing and then learning of his HIV positive status from a doctor who merely wrote the words on a piece of a paper was not unusual. Unless they brought their own interpreter, pre- and post-test counselling was often unavailable to deaf people.

The comic book highlights some of the obstacles deaf people are likely to face as they attempt to access HIV/AIDS information. In one sequence, an overprotective teacher confiscates a leaflet about male condoms, but a more enlightened teacher tells the students where they can get free condoms and takes them on a class outing to a clinic. In another, some male students harass a gay classmate, whom they later learn to accept.

According to GALA Director Dr Ruth Morgan, Meletse’s openness about his HIV positive status and his homosexuality is rare in the deaf community.

“The deaf community are very conservative in their thinking so we wanted to raise awareness around same-sex issues, but also around sexual issues more broadly,” she said. “There are also huge issues we wanted to raise around rape and abuse of young deaf people that goes unreported.”

One of the comic book’s female characters suffers sexual abuse by a male teacher but tells no one. Eventually she confides in her friends, who persuade her to report the incident to a trusted teacher and the abuser is then taken away by police.

Part of the difficulty in reaching deaf people with information about HIV and AIDS is the relatively low level of literacy, which Meletse blames on inferior educational opportunities.

The comic book, illustrated by deaf artist Tommy Motswai and workshopped with Meletse and other deaf people, uses minimal text in the form of cellphone text messages, signs and the occasional thought bubble. Speech bubbles were avoided “because they come from the hearing world and deaf people wouldn’t relate to them.”

Simphiwe Mkhize of the South African Sign Language Department at the University of Witwatersrand advised comic storytellers Neil Verlaque-Napper and Andre Croucamp. “In South Africa, we have a lot of different dialects in signs, so I had to choose the most universal signs,” she said.

The comic book is free and available from DEAFSA and from GALA. It can also be downloaded here (pdf Format)


(This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations)

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