The value of communication. Global Goal #3 Good Health and Well-being

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The value of communication. Global Goal #3 Good Health and Well-being

All mammals have developed ways to communicate with one another. The more advanced the

communication methods, the more advanced the society. We have noises we form into words. We

have words we write onto paper. We can translate those words in a matter of seconds. No language

barrier should hold us back. Humans have never stopped trying to find inventive ways to fill natural

communication voids. If you are born deaf; sign language. If you are born blind; braille. Growing up

in Ireland I have never encountered a communication challenge that could not be overcome. I took

easy communication for granted. Throughout my travels, one man, one soul, one new

communication challenge, taught me to appreciate the art of communication. It also gave me a new appreciation for the systems of support set up in Ireland and most of Europe to support those of us with communication challenges.  

Unable to tell me his name, I listened to his peers and called this man Apa. His doctor would later inform me his birth given name was Rajan, but he was affectionately known as Apa and it suited him perfectly. Apa translates from the Indian language kannada to the English word ‘father’. As one of the eldest residents in the rehabilitation centre he was well respected and honoured as a father figure.

Apa was living with injuries and hindered abilities caused by long term, untreated leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease. Leprosy is a disease caused by bacteria that, if left untreated for too long, can damage nerves and therefore the sense of touch. Due to frequent damage and lack of healing, limbs and appendages are often damaged beyond repair and in many cases, must be amputated to prevent the spread of infection & further harm. (There are more complexities to leprosy, I talk these further in my 2nd blog.) Apa had lost movement and control of his toes and fingers, many of which had to be amputated. He had lost feeling in his hands and feet, developed saddle-nose deformity (another common side effect of the disease if untreated), lost his sight, and many of his teeth, he was losing his hearing and now losing control of his tongue. All of these medical issues challenge his quality of life and all could have been avoided with available support and healthcare.

My communication with Apa was challenged. We didn’t share a common language. He couldn’t see

my facial expressions, or hand gestures, nor was he able to easily show his thoughts through his

own. We would sit, sometimes for hours, on a low wall, soaking up the heat of the sun, side by

side, hand in hand and he would talk. He would tell me all about his life, and the world and profound

knowledge he had gained through his years of having to show strength. Or at least that’s what I

believed he was telling me. His words were a mumble or a whisper and in a language I could not

understand. However to listen to him, in those moments, it could not be denied; Apa was wise. To

be in his aura, you could sense his overpowering respect for life. The key to all of this was his

smile! Between his mumbles, that felt like storytelling, he would grin from ear to ear and his eyes

would light up like he couldn’t imagine being happier telling this tale. And that communication taught me who he was, and I hope he knew the way I did, that we understood one another.

The 3rd time I went to sit beside him on the wall, without seeing me, without hearing me, he knew I

was there. He moved an inch closer, and reached out his hand and began a new story. And

somehow, he knew it was me. And over the next 30 minutes I thought long and hard about life and

all the gifts and opportunities I had and how to appreciate them. And as he spoke, it felt as though he could sense my thoughts and feelings and he was responding and encouraging them. My thoughts in those moments were focused on the harsh reality that almost 10% of the world is dealing with daily communication challenges. 5.3% of the world’s population have some form of disabling hearing loss or deafness (2012 Study by the World Health Organisation) and 3% live with severe vision impairment or blindness; a statistic that is expected to triple over the next 30 years (Magnitude, temporal trends, and projections of the global prevalence of blindness and distance and near vision impairment: a systematic review and meta-analysis - Prof Rupert R A Bourne, MD 2017).

Deafness and Blindness are both recognised and represented in Irish society by unique and dedicated organisations. The IDS (Irish deaf society) and the NCBI (National Council for the Blind in

Ireland) have core values set in the human rights and quality of life and both are fully supported by

the government. Being represented by an organisation or having an official national community is

not enough. Many people who are challenged by communication barriers like these are likely to also face the challenge of social isolation or poverty. I learned from my time sitting on the wall beside Apa, that we need to step up and be open to alternative forms of communication. A conversation can be had, face to face via lip reading, or note writing. An email can be sent via voice note. There is no excuse in our society for poverty or social isolation as we have developed, over many years of growth, systems, networks and methods to make our society inclusive of those with communication challenges.  

In the 1850s, under Queen Victoria the British colonisation of India began. Many history books will show that British rule contributed to the modernization of India as the British trading companies quickly developed infrastructure such as roads, trains, canals and bridges. However, this infrastructure was developed for the purpose of transport and exporting of Indian resources rather than manufactured goods. This supported the growth and development of Europe and European economies at the expense and decline of the Indian economy. Prior to British rule, India had 27% of the worlds exported goods which was equal to all of Europe put together. Towards the end of British rule ending in 1947, India’s goods export had fallen less than 4% of the global total leading to deindustrialisation of India. During the colonization and exploitation of India, networks and support systems had not been developed by governing bodies in the same way as they were developed in Europe. I cannot help but wonder what policies, systems and support would be available to the Indian public today if India had remained under their own rule and maintained their 27% ownership of the global economic stage to support their population of 17.5% of the world total.

What can we in Europe do to repay this historical debt? And what can we do to support their development of communication support systems that many of us have benefited from for centuries?

About Author:

Name: Kate Griffin
Award: Silver Award
SDG: 3