How well are the NZSL Act’s guiding principles for government departments being implemented?

Section 9(1) of the NZSL Act states that government departments should be guided, so far as is reasonably practicable, by the following principles:
  • consult the Deaf community on matters relating to NZSL
  • use NZSL in promoting their services and providing information to the public
  • make their services and information accessible to the Deaf community (including through the use of NZSL).

56. The purpose of these principles is to promote access to government information and services for the Deaf community.

57. The submissions focussed on use of NZSL and accessibility of government information and services by Deaf people. No submitter commented on consultation about matters relating to NZSL.

58. Overall, the review noted a lack of active implementation by government departments in both making information accessible and provision of NZSL interpretation. While submitters reported some government departments were making positive efforts, activities were not always consistent within departments.

Provision of accessible information

59. In response to the question of how well government departments are using NZSL to tell people about their services, some submitters observed that most departments do not include information in NZSL on their websites (Submissions 8, 10, 12, 14, 32, 38).

60. Submitters reported varying ability to access government services or information in NZSL, even within the same government agency. For example, some submitters reported that Work and Income had not provided interpreters (Submissions 10, 14, 16, 32, 33, 37, 38). Other submitters suggested that Work and Income should be a positive benchmark for other departments (Submissions 21, 31, 41).

61. In this context, submitters felt that most government departments would benefit from guidelines, resources and awareness training on dealing with Deaf people (Submissions 2, 7, 15, 25, 32).

62. Several government departments have begun providing NZSL on video, DVDs and on their websites about their services. The Ministry of Social Development provides information about its services in NZSL, with a voiceover, and this includes information on help that the Ministry can give by providing a NZSL interpreter. Some examples were noted by submitters, where agencies’ DVDs do a good job with generic information (Submissions 7, 12, 21, 32, 34):

  • ACC
  • Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management
  • Electoral Commission
  • Ministry of Health
  • Health and Disability Commissioner’s Office
  • Human Rights Commission
  • Ministry of Social Development, including:
    • Child, Youth and Family
    • Work and Income
    • Office for Disability Issues
  • Statistics New Zealand.

63. Some submitters said that the Ministry of Education is not doing enough to make its services available in NZSL. They said it is very difficult for children at primary and secondary schools to get access to teaching in NZSL or via an interpreter (Submissions 2, 10, 15).

64. Although not a government department, the Human Rights Commission’s website includes a NZSL video of key information about the role of the Human Rights Commission, human rights and a guide to enquiries and complaints.

65. The Human Rights Commission found that government departments in general have provided negligible information in NZSL, in disregard of the principles in the NZSL Act.

66. The low level of information on government services accessible through NZSL, especially key information, needs to be improved. Government agencies clearly need to be more proactive in this area.

67. Making government information accessible to Deaf people does not require all information to be translated into NZSL. An alternative way to provide information that Deaf people can access is for government departments to prepare Plain English or Easy to Read English versions on their departmental websites. This has the advantage of also meeting the needs of intellectually disabled people and those with limited English understanding, such as those with English as a second language.

68. A commonsense approach needs to be used by government departments to determine how best to distribute information to the Deaf community. Important information needs to be available in NZSL in order to reach its target audience, eg public health information. The Ministry of Health has some essential information available in NZSL, eg an influenza fact sheet.

69. More regular monitoring, through the New Zealand Disability Strategy reporting, on what government agencies are doing to provide accessible information and access to services to the Deaf community, will encourage an ongoing awareness and consideration about how information is prepared and delivered.

Making government services accessible

70. Members of the public should be able to access information and services provided by government departments and to utilise a complaints process to address any issues in regard to that service. Where there is difficulty getting complaints addressed by a government department, complaints can and should be made to the Human Rights Commission, the Health and Disability Commissioner or to the Ombudsman – where appropriate.

71. In promoting and publicising accessible government services, a commonsense approach needs to be used by government departments by using the most practical and effective options. Not all communication needs to be face-to-face – texting, emails, interactive websites and video remote interpreting may be more appropriate depending on the situation.

72. The key government departments covered by this review have policies for the use of NZSL interpreters.

73. At least one submitter reported that government agencies and Deaf people are frequently confused about responsibilities for booking and paying for interpreters, and about when interpreters must be provided (Submission 20).

74. The experiences reported by many submitters indicate that government agencies are not always applying their own policies. Submitters reported situations that included government agency staff refusing to arrange and/or pay for a qualified interpreter and, instead, using the Deaf person’s unqualified family members, or pen and paper. These reported examples appear to reflect lack of knowledge, poor staff training, or cost-shifting, rather than formal departmental policies.

75. The Office for Disability Issues is working with other government agencies, a Deaf advisory group and representatives from interpreter associations to develop guidelines which will set out minimum requirements for government use of NZSL interpreters. These guidelines will specify when, and for what, NZSL interpreters must be provided.

76. The lack of ability of Deaf people to choose who they want as their interpreter was raised by several submitters. They related that the quality of NZSL interpretation can vary greatly depending on the interpreter provided. This appeared to be an issue across all government agencies.

Shortage of NZSL interpreters

77. One of the barriers government departments face in providing NZSL interpreters is the current shortage of qualified NZSL interpreters, and the fact that they are not available in all localities. This means it is not always possible to provide face-to-face interpreting when and where required.

78. The Office of the Health and Disability Commissioner observed that: “At present the focus is ad hoc and inequalities exist in a significant number of rural and provincial regions throughout the country in relation to access to trained interpreters. The various funding streams urgently need a clear policy so eligibility for public funding and assistance is clearer and better reflects the needs of those requiring interpreting and translation services”.

79. Currently, the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) provides the only entry-level course training NZSL interpreters. The two-year diploma course offered has had difficulty filling its 20 student places, and has had a high drop-out or failure rate. Many of the students are not fully proficient in NZSL when they begin the course so the learning curve is very steep. For this reason AUT has just changed its qualification to a three-year degree course.

80. In order to encourage people to train as interpreters, the Ministries of Education and Economic Development provide scholarships annually to NZSL interpreter students at AUT. So far these have not been fully subscribed. Promotional activity is occurring to grow the numbers of people taking up these scholarships.

81. Te Wānanga o Aotearoa will begin a course to train trilingual (Māori/NZSL/English) interpreters in 2012. Te Puni Kōkiri is currently considering access to trilingual interpreters.

82. Regardless of these changes, the shortage of NZSL interpreters in many parts of the country is unlikely to be met through training within the next decade.

Video remote interpreting

83 Video remote interpreting (VRI) has the potential to provide a partial solution to the unavailability of interpreters in New Zealand. It can provide:

  • access to an interpreting service at remote locations where there may be no resident interpreter
  • efficient service provision.

84. VRI uses video or web cameras and a fast broadband internet connection to provide sign language interpreting services through a remote interpreter. Typically, the Deaf and hearing people are face-to-face with a videophone or web camera equipped computer. The interpreter works from another location, also with a videophone or web camera-equipped computer, and facilitates the communication of the two (or more) people who are meeting.

85. The advantage of VRI is that it appears to be more cost-effective, as time and travel costs of interpreters to reach the location where the Deaf person is are eliminated. It allows more effective use of available interpreters and shorter turnaround in arranging interpreters.

86. The experience of SignVideo, a British Sign Language video interpreting service in the United Kingdom, is that their sign language interpreters handled three times the number of assignments when they worked remotely via video than when they were physically present at face-to-face meetings.

87. Work and Income is currently trialling the use of VRI in two of its Community Link centres. The information that the trials provide should allow government to estimate the costs of VRI services more accurately and to examine its effectiveness in meeting the needs of Deaf clients. If cost-effective and practical, VRI should be funded by government.

88. The Ministry of Economic Development recently re-tendered the national relay service providing telecommunication services for the Deaf, hearing impaired and speech impaired communities. In doing so, it asked potential providers to include video remote interpreting (VRI) as an additional service, subject to confirmation that government funding will be available to meet the costs. As a result, the Ministry of Economic Development now has indicative competitive prices for VRI services.

89. The Ministry of Justice provides video conferencing facilities in courts. This may make VRI a simpler and more cost-effective option for some legal proceedings, than hiring an interpreter for face-to-face translation.

Obligations of Crown entities

90. Crown entities, such as ACC, District Health Boards and Housing New Zealand Corporation are often seen by the public as government departments. Submitters commented that these agencies were not providing NZSL interpreters for Deaf clients.

91. But Crown entities are not obliged to provide NZSL interpreters under the NZSL Act or translate information on their services. They are, however, bound by the Human Rights Act 1993 and are required to have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

92. The Human Rights Act 1993 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, including physical disability. This covers both actions and omissions.

93. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities explicitly promotes the rights of sign language users. It lends weight to the NZSL Act and also imposes stronger obligations on the State to meet the sign language communication needs of Deaf people:

  • Article 9 of the Convention relates to accessibility, including accessibility of information. To enable disabled people to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, the State must take appropriate measures to ensure equal access for disabled people to information and communications.
  • Article 13 relates to access to justice and the need for the State to accommodate the needs of disabled people in legal proceedings so that they have equal and effective access to justice.
  • Article 21 sets out the right of disabled people to communicate and receive information on an equal basis in their preferred form of communication, including use of sign language. It also requires States to promote the use of sign language.

94. Submissions to the review identified inconsistencies in the provision of interpreters by some Crown entities.

95. Some submitters noted that hospitals are not always willing to call or pay for an interpreter (Submissions 2, 14, 15, 16, 32, 33, and 41). However, one submitter observed that recognition of NZSL as an official language has lent weight to requests for hospitals to pay for interpreters (Submission 21).

96. A submitter reported that Housing New Zealand Corporation has insisted that Deaf clients bring their own interpreter (Submission 21). As a Crown entity, Housing New Zealand Corporation is not bound by the NZSL Act. It is however, bound by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and the Human Rights Act 1993 to ensure that people are not discriminated against on the basis of their deafness.

97. The Convention is not legally binding on government departments and Crown entities as a matter of domestic law, but it is a matter to which they should have regard to in making decisions. However, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and the Human Rights Act 1993 are legally binding on government departments and Crown entities.

98. No legislative change is required to ensure that Crown entities give greater consideration to the requirements of Deaf people and provide better and more accessible services to them.

99. The review believes that the Ministers responsible for respective Crown entities should contact their Boards of Directors, urging support for use of NZSL and interpreters or use of other approaches to make services and information available to Deaf people.

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