Inclusive eye health is empowering marginalised groups so they can get treatment for eye conditions and access other services, such as eye screenings. In Tanzania, we are working to improve local health care by helping governments and local stakeholders to provide inclusive and sustainable health services that are available for all. This includes removing physical, environmental and communication barriers – from registration to accessing the services – as best we can.
Starting with environmental barriers, for instance: most eye clinics are not accessible; a person with a disability cannot enter freely without help from someone else. This is true for all kinds of disabilities. A person using a wheelchair cannot come alone and enter the eye clinic without needing someone to push, direct, or just help them navigate through the various door sizes. People with visual impairments will face similar barriers. And for those with communication barriers, someone with [for example] a hearing impairment who needs treatment is limited by there being very few nurses with sign language skills.
We believe that everyone, wherever they live, should be able to receive quality, affordable health care. This is why our project, supported by UK aid, is working to address these issues from the ground up, with full participation and inclusion of people with disabilities.
Many people who would have gone blind, have now had their sight restored. During a visit to one of Sightsavers’ outreach camps in Kilosa, a remote area in eastern Tanzania, I met 67-year-old Amina, who works as a traditional healer and is supporting a family of 14. She lost her sight and independence after developing cataracts in both eyes and was relying on her children to help her move around, take her to the washroom and feed her. Being the breadwinner of the family, she continued to work providing traditional medicines to communities and teaching her students for future generations.
As part of our project we put out messages to remote communities, through a variety of platforms including radio, local town criers and religious leaders. One of Amina’s students heard our call and decided to take Amina to one of our eye camps where she was diagnosed with cataracts. Fortunately, Amina received surgery, and now she can see and walk freely. I visited her a couple of weeks later – she was very happy, and her family was relieved her sight had been saved.
We are constantly evaluating and learning from new experiences in this project. Thanks to Amina, we are adopting a new strategy to influence and educate traditional healers, and since her surgery Amina has recommended at least four other people visit us for treatment. She’s very proud of the way she’s referring other people. She’s even bragging in the streets: “Hey guys, I went, and I was treated. Surgery is not bad. You can get cataract surgery and continue seeing.”
Amina is just one example of how this project improves the lives of marginalised groups, but there are so many people who are benefiting from this project.
Shortly after the outbreak, we had to stop services to keep everyone safe. We could not provide any practical support, especially remote outreach, because all movement across Tanzania was limited.
During the time of limited movement, we took our work online and started remote discussions with the government and partners, dedicating our time to distributing accessible materials across the country on COVID-19. This took the form of information booklets in braille, audiotapes and much more. We did this so that people with disabilities knew and could inform themselves on safe practices.
Once restrictions were lifted, my team worked extremely hard to plan and bring in guidelines and safety procedures to clinics and health centres we work in. After having to pause services, we now have a backlog of patients needing treatment and some people’s sight will have deteriorated in that time. We’ve had to reduce the number of staff and patients, making more space and having fewer people around. We have also provided personal protective equipment, including masks and soap, to medical workers in our hospitals. I am so proud of my team. During these testing times they were flexible and dedicated. Despite the challenges, 2,071 cataract surgeries have been conducted, six medical workers have been trained in inclusive eye care and over 5,500 people were screened for eye diseases.