Has making NZSL an official language made a difference?

NZSL was made an official language of New Zealand as a means to promote and maintain the use of NZSL. It is the native language of Deaf New Zealanders, and they have no easy access to communication(s) without it.

20. Overall, submitters seemed to think that there has been a small improvement following recognition of NZSL as an official language. Five submitters to the review said that recognition as an official language has resulted in some increase in visibility and/or awareness of NZSL (Submissions 2, 7, 23, 32, 41). A further seven said that, while there has been some increase in visibility and/or awareness, more action and resources are needed to promote NZSL (Submissions 9, 11, 12, 22, 25, 30, and 34). Seven submitters said that recognition of NZSL as an official language has not been very successful.

21. Three submitters noted that recognition as an official language has given the Deaf community more pride and confidence (Submissions 2, 7, 25).

22. The Victoria University Deaf Studies Unit noted that the recognition of NZSL as an official language appears to have increased interest in NZSL in the hearing community, and that more people are learning and using NZSL (Submission 7).

23. However, many people in the wider community still remain unaware of NZSL, that it is a real language, or that it is one of New Zealand’s official languages (Submissions 10, 31).

24. Some submitters (including a submission from the Human Rights Commission) felt that the government had been slow to promote NZSL through official events. The review agreed with this viewpoint, given the following actions or lack of actions:

  • neither the Māori Language Act 1987 nor the NZSL Act specifies what designation as an ‘official language’ means. However, when departments organise official events they are likely to include Māori language and culture but very few appear to consider use of NZSL
  • speeches by Ministers rarely include sign language greetings yet Māori is often included, even when the event or organisation addressed is not Māori
  • inclusion of NZSL appears sporadic at official events with organisations having to lobby for its inclusion rather than NZSL being included as a matter of course. The Office for Disability Issues lobbied for inclusion of NZSL in the Waitangi Day celebrations 2011 and the Waitangi Trust Board has decided to budget for this in future years. Events such as the Opening of Parliament and Anzac Day ceremonies still do not include NZSL. Neither does Parliament television
  • while the last Governor-General included a sign language greeting in his speeches, there is no official policy requiring this. On taking up his role five years ago, the Right Honourable Sir Anand Satyanand decided to do so as a personal recognition of NZSL as an official language. He added greetings in NZSL and has proceeded to open every public speech in all the languages of New Zealand and its territories, including NZSL.[1]

25. Most promotional activities in NZSL, often funded by government agencies, have been initiated by the Deaf community or community groups and schools. Deaf Aotearoa is already promoting NZSL with positive results. Some examples of the promotion of NZSL are listed below:

  • New Zealand Sign Language week. This Deaf Aotearoa initiative is a key mechanism for raising the profile of Deaf people in the wider community, and supporting initiatives where hearing people become involved in and learn more of NZSL. NZSL Week is endorsed by the Minister for Disability Issues and receives some funding from government
  • funding from the Ministry of Education for the development of an online NZSL dictionary
  • inclusion of NZSL in the recent promotion of mother languages developed by English Language Partners New Zealand, Community Language Association of New Zealand, New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO and the Human Rights Commission
  • the Ministry of Education’s website Thumbs Up - An introduction to sign language. This is a teaching resource with the purpose of increasing the number of hearing students and teachers who know NZSL. It is aimed at Year 7 and 8 students.

26. Government departments have provided financial support for a number of promotional activities, and in a few instances have been responsible for such activities. They could do more by deliberately including the use of NZSL in official events they organise.

27. The Canterbury earthquakes have had a significant impact on the promotion of the NZSL Act, through use of NZSL interpreters at media conferences following the February 2011 earthquake.[1] Feedback from Deaf people was that the use of NZSL interpreters generated a national awareness about the rights and interests of the Deaf community and their information requirements.

“I feel if there was more sign language on the TV, then the public would realise that we are not stupid, we are normal, just communicate in sign language instead of spoken English” (Submission 9).

The impact of the Canterbury earthquakes

28. The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management had information available in both NZSL and captions on the hazards faced in New Zealand, and advice on how to be better prepared for emergency situations.

29. The Canterbury earthquakes proved the need for information in a form that is accessible to the Deaf community, and it is now the responsibility of government to keep this momentum going forward.

Translation of the NZSL Act

30. Several submitters noted that, as the NZSL Act has not been translated into NZSL, many people in the Deaf community were unaware of their rights under the NZSL Act (Submissions 7, 32, 34).

“When I attended a Deaf community meeting about this review…, it was quite apparent that participants did not have a clear understanding of what is in the NZSL Act, and they raised the point that they could not understand the English version” (Submission 7).

31. Submitters suggested that government translating the NZSL Act into NZSL would be a demonstrable commitment to the legislation.

32. The NZSL Act has now been translated into NZSL by the Office for Disability Issues and will be placed on its website at www.odi.govt.nz before this report is tabled in the House of Representatives. Copies will also be circulated to the Deaf community on DVD. This will enable better understanding by the Deaf community of their rights and responsibilities under the NZSL Act and will go some way to providing Deaf people with the information they need about their right to access a NZSL interpreter in legal settings.

[1]    The cost of NZSL interpreters was paid for by the Christchurch City Council Civil Defence section [1]     Comments by the Governor-General in his speech to launch the New Zealand Sign Language Online Dictionary, Victoria University, Wellington, 24 June 2011.

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