Appendix 1: Background

The call for recognition of the NZSL began in 1999, with lobbying by Deaf Aotearoa (formerly the National Deaf Association) about New Zealand Deaf peoples' disadvantage in education and justice.

The Deaf community were seeking official recognition of their language and better access to public services and information through NZSL.

In 2003, the Office for Disability Issues consulted nationally with Deaf communities as a first step towards developing a bill to legally recognise NZSL that would also address the objectives of the New Zealand Disability Strategy.

Three themes emerged from the community consultation:

  • low awareness about Deaf people and their needs within the State sector and wider society
  • poor access to government services, and large discrepancies between the ways in which Deaf people and government agencies perceive the accessibility of government services for Deaf people
  • inadequate funding and development of sign language interpreter services.

Subsequent consultation with government agencies revealed resource limitations in implementing the proposed Bill and identified potential difficulties by government agencies in clarifying enforceable rights and obligations in individual circumstances.[1]

Interpreter standards in legal settings

In October 2003, Cabinet agreed to the establishment of a working group to address issues relating to the use of NZSL interpreters in preparation for the New Zealand Sign Language Act. The working group was led by the Office for Disability Issues, with officials from the Ministry of Justice, Deaf experts, and NZSL interpreters, and in consultation with relevant government agencies. It considered:

  • options for implementing interpreter standards by the time the Bill was passed, including regulations, if necessary
  • the current funding mechanisms for NZSL interpreters, including an assessment of whether these could be more efficient and effective.

This work was to identify what needed to be included in legislation and what could be dealt with by government agencies without any changes to legislation.

It found that the existing quality of NZSL interpreters in courts could be enhanced at no or little extra cost with the implementation of minimum standards set through the NZSL Bill. It recommended that these standards require a qualification in Sign Language interpreting and a minimum of two years post-graduate experience as a practicing interpreter. While these standards were not included in the final version of the NZSL Bill, they were incorporated in the Ministry of Justice’s instructions.

The courts were already seen to provide relatively comprehensive interpreter coverage for the legal proceedings defined in the NZSL Bill.

A number of services in the legal system were not funded by the Ministry of Justice. These included services for Deaf people who were not defendants or witnesses such as family members, Victim Support services or access to Community Law Centres. The NZSL Bill continued to exclude coverage of these services.

The effectiveness of NZSL interpreting in court relies on the level of awareness among court and related personnel as to appropriate use of interpreters, as well as the existence of processes that supported impartiality and the avoidance of errors. The working group believed that standards could best be implemented using instructions to court staff and not regulations.

The development of further NZSL interpreter courses with well-trained tutors was seen as essential to attracting more interpreters to the profession.

Passage of the Bill

As Deaf people do not fit the definition of an ethnic minority, yet have experienced inequities as a result of linguistic discrimination, the NZSL Bill aimed to confer on NZSL a status equal to an indigenous spoken language, and strengthen Deaf people's right to use that language in accessing public services.

The NZSL Bill had its first reading in Parliament in April 2004. A large audience of Deaf people watched this first reading of the Bill which was simultaneously interpreted into NZSL and streamed live on the internet.

The Justice and Electoral Select Committee considered public submissions on the Bill later in 2004. Instructions for submitters were made available in NZSL web-clips by the Office for Disability Issues, and the Committee received submissions in writing and in NZSL on videotape.

Submissions indicated that Deaf people did not have equal access to government and non-government services. Submitters believed that better access would provide Deaf people with more opportunities to contribute to society. NZSL interpretation was cited as needed in education, employment, information, health, mental health, banks, legal advice, transport, public meetings, conferences, business advice and business inquiries, Police and the justice system. Access to these services and to information was seen as a basic human right.

Submitters sought more interpreters and raised standards (capacity and capability) for interpreters.

NZSL was seen as important to hearing people, including those families with deaf children, and hearing people who interact with deaf people in the workplace and community. Submitters suggested that more people should have access to learn NZSL, especially in the education system.

The submissions had four broad rationales for supporting recognition:

  • restoring esteem to NZSL users through linguistic and cultural recognition – redressing earlier stigmatisation of sign language
  • making compulsory education available through NZSL, as of right, to Deaf children
  • securing and implementing the right to access public services and information through NZSL, and to participate in society
  • material support for the maintenance and promotion of NZSL, both within the Deaf community and by encouraging the wider community to use NZSL, and therefore increasing Deaf people's inclusion in society.

Objections to the Bill during submissions and readings in the House included the risk of creating inequitable privilege by according special rights to one language group, and potentially opening the floodgates to similar demands by immigrant communities. But an analysis of the consistency of the NZSL Bill with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 established that it did not impinge on the rights or freedoms conferred by any previous legislation nor did it privilege NZSL users over any others.

Because the need to communicate was recognised in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, some situations where interpreters need to be provided by government, eg for Police interviews, were not specified again in the NZSL Bill.

The New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006 was passed by 119 in favour and 2 objections at its third reading on 6 April 2006.


[1]    Wolf, A 2005 The New Zealand Sign Language Bill (Case Program) Parksville, Victoria, Australia: The Australia and New Zealand School of Government quoted in McKee, Rachel (In press). Action pending: Four years on from the New Zealand Sign Language Act. VUW Law Review 42.

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