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Ministry of Social Development and Family Services front line workers learn sign language at UWI Open Campus, Padmore Street, San Fernando, yesterday.

When a hearing-impaired person visits a social welfare office alone, it can cost around $150 per hour for an interpreter to translate that transaction.

With many persons with disabilities already living below the poverty line, they account for a considerable portion of the State’s social safety net

As the International Federation of Social Workers celebrated World Social Work Day yesterday, frontline workers of the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services began learning sign language.

Launching the Introduction to Sign Language Training at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Open Campus in San Fernando,

Minister of Social Development and Family Services Donna Cox says this will improve the quality of service delivered by the Ministry’s offices. The training aims to assist frontline staff with the necessary skills to communicate with the community of persons with hearing impairments through sign language.

Cox said often, people with hearing impairment who visit the ministry’s offices come with a relative or friend who can interpret on their behalf.

“On other occasions, however, we have noted that when they are not accompanied, it can cost on average a minimum of $150 per hour to utilise the services of an interpreter.

As a result, there is a communication barrier between the employees of the ministry and this segment of the community of persons with disabilities,” Cox said.

The National Policy for Persons with Disabilities calls for a holistic framework for achieving social inclusion and equal opportunity for all citizens with disabilities. As a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Cox said this was a step in the right direction.

As the ministry responsible for addressing the State’s responsibility for persons with disabilities, Cox said there was a need to treat the problem. Therefore, it collaborated with UWI to host the in-person sessions.

Each class will accommodate 10 frontline workers to ensure adequate physical distancing. While most classes are virtual, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, instructors say that because sign language deals with body movement and charisma, physical attendance is necessary. In a previous online trial, it took four hours to cover the alphabet.

Yesterday, frontline workers from Rio Claro, Princes Town, Penal, Couva and San Fernando began learning their first words.

Cox said the training would also increase awareness and improve the communication between the frontline staff and hearing-impaired persons. She said the programme would be interactive, practical and educational.

The sessions will include a brief introduction to sign language, the history of sign language, fingerspelling, the art of signing, learning to sign the alphabet, along with practical activities using numbers, colours, days of the week, time and actions.

Cox said UWI and the ministry would hold classes in other areas later in the year, and she looks forward to participating in the Port-of-Spain sessions.