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May 3, 2010 | by  | in Online Only | [ssba]

New Zealand Sign Language Week

This week is New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) week. It is also a week for celebrating the New Zealand’s Deaf community. NZSL became one of New Zealand’s official languages in 2006, joining English and Maori. The movement to make NZSL an official New Zealand language started at Victoria University, so it would seem only appropriate that we support as best we can.

In this vein there a number of introductory classes in NZSL. These classes are held at lunchtime in VZ201. Each class is 45 minutes long and gives you a very small taste of what Sign Language is like. It’s a bit like having a taster of the bottle of wine without buying it. But you can buy the wine—by signing up for DEAF101.

The Deaf community is an active one in New Zealand and at last census, around 25,000 people said they used NZSL. There is also a thriving community of sign language interpreters. Unfortunately, the only qualification for interpreters is only available in Auckland. Shosh Cleary, a former Vic student, chased her desire to become an interpreter up north.

“I recently moved to Auckland to begin a Sign Language Interpreters course. Prior to this I was studying at Victoria University Wellington. I was studying Psychology, Linguistics and Sign Language,” she says.

“I was encouraged to apply for the Interpreters Course and unfortunately the only place that offered the course was in Auckland, but that came with its positives and now I have a wonderful deaf boyfriend. I’m really enjoying the course up here and the Auckland Deaf Society has been very welcoming and lots of fun.”

While the New Zealand Deaf community has been a fixture for almost as long as New Zealand has, the road to recognition for NZSL has been a rocky one. The first recorded teacher of sign language in New Zealand was Dorcas Mitchell, who taught British Sign Language (BSL) in 1868. For a long time there were specialised schools for Deaf children, and while they were focused on teaching Deaf children to speak, the social interaction gave rise to the first iteration of NZSL, which drew heavily from BSL. The new sign language was frowned in the main by the hearing teachers, but kids will be kids and it was almost impossible for the hearing teachers to stamp down on it.

This attitude towards the Deaf community abated somewhat in 1979, when the powers that be decided that they would introduce a program “Total Communication”, which had an ideology that essentially ran: communicate in anyway possible. The most recent problem that the new generation of Deaf children face is the societal move away from specialist schools, and the attempt to integrate their education into the mainstream. This has proved difficult for Deaf children who feel isolated from the children around them, and in some cases cut off from their peers. Adam Smith, a 23-year-old building apprentice, shares his experience.

“I was born full deaf and I lived in Dargaville. I started signing and trying to talk when I was 3 or 4 year old and I started school when I was 5. I was alone at school and I could only communicate with a few friends and my family. I went to KIT (Keep In Touch) Day for Deaf children. We would play around, ride horses, feed cows and sheep and talk sign with some great friendly people. When I went to high school in Hamilton I was the only one who was deaf, everyone else could hear.”

The biggest problem faced by the Deaf community is a lack of understanding. If you ever wanted to understand a little more about people just like you but you never knew it you should definitely head to one of the NZSL taster classes. When language is your only barrier you have only yourself to blame for not breaching it.


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