NZSL Youth Project

An insight into the preferences and needs of the Deaf Youth community as NZSL users

Report commissioned by the New Zealand Sign Language Board

Authored by: Tracey Witko (registered Educational Psychologist)


This project provides a small insight into the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth community across New Zealand, with regards to their acquisition, use and access to New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL).

Background and context

It was identified by the NZSL Board that more understanding was needed around the needs of the Deaf Youth community, including the impact of local school enrolments and the access/use of NZSL for this population. The focus of this report is to gain an insight into the needs and wants of the Deaf Youth community, to better align future supports and services.

Information sources and methodology

It is important to note that the report is not a comprehensive review of the Deaf Youth community, but rather a representation of a small sample of the community. Therefore, there are likely to be limitations and gaps in the findings.
Information summarised in this report over the past three months was collected from:

  • Interviews with Deaf Youth
  • Interviews with members of the community – Deaf community members, parents, researchers
  • Survey data gathered from Deaf Youth, Parents and Deaf Education professionals
  • Feedback from healthcare organisation, national service provider for Deaf people in NZ and an Australian Deaf organisation
  • Additional information from international and national research.

Summary of themes identified

The themes that emerged from the data gathered and illustrate an insight into the experiences and needs of some of the Deaf Youth community in New Zealand, include:

  • NZSL acquisition and access
  • Identity and sense of self
  • Social relationships and connections
  • Motivation and expectations for the future
  • Further learning, services and support

NZSL acquisition and access

Many Deaf Youth highlighted the age they were exposed to and acquired NZSL, including starting to use and have access to it, as being later in their childhood during their teenage years. Reports have indicated that it is not always easy to access NZSL and therefore many are missing out on early access to NZSL and the ability to use NZSL in their daily lives.

Identity and sense of self

Engagement with the Deaf community and Deaf role models were perceived as extremely important factors to develop a positive identity and sense of self, and an opportunity to focus on what it means to be Deaf.

Social relationships and connections

Relationships with other Deaf peers are often not formed until they start attending a secondary school, if other Deaf students are present, which can create gaps for positive social development.

Motivation / expectations for the future

Many youth were unsure of what they wanted for their future and found this process challenging. Many of the future goals had some relation to NZSL, strengthening NZSL and Deaf awareness for Deaf children and the wider community.

Future learning, services and support

The Deaf Youth community identified a number of areas that would support their future functioning and wellbeing, with the majority perceiving more functional and practical learning through NZSL as having high importance. The support in these areas were described as needing to ‘fill in the gaps’ of learning that was missed during their childhood journey.

Summary points of information shared

Much of the information shared has strong historical ties, with discriminatory roots embedded in the medical/audiological perspective of deafness. Limited access to language and the learning gaps many Deaf Youth have experienced, all make it hard to assess a clear way forward.

  • According to this sample, many young Deaf people are accessing NZSL at a late age (e.g. in their teenage years), often once family and education professionals have realised their ability to acquire language via oral/aural methods of communication and/or their academic achievement has not progressed.
  • Due to this late acquisition, a lot of learning is required to happen in a small number of years before they finish their secondary education.
  • Acquiring, gaining access to and using NZSL, continue to be reported as a significant barrier for many young Deaf people and their families.
  • From this sample, many families had the desire for their child and their wider family to acquire NZSL, however they did not have the support to be able to do this. This was particularly reported by parents of children who were attending a mainstream education setting and in more remote areas.
  • Early access to NZSL was recognised as being a key factor influencing the outcomes of developing a positive Deaf identity, strong leadership skills, belief around their future success and the drive to grow and strengthen the youth community.
  • It was widely acknowledged that as more young Deaf people are educated in mainstream settings, the more they are isolated from their Deaf peers, connections with the Deaf community and Deaf role models. Adding to this is less access to NZSL, less focus on their identity development and cultural awareness, which in turn can leave people feeling less motivated to engage and strengthen the Deaf community.
  • NZSL Board Youth Project DECEMBER 2020 4
  • During the post-secondary school years, there can be a heavy reliance on the Deaf community, as they provide Deaf Youth with accessible language, supports, mentoring and an increased knowledge base around daily life.
  • Having access to positive Deaf role models has been recognised as possible influencers for positive identity development, motivation and independence and setting expectations.
  • Deaf role models have been found to benefit families, improve parent expectations and attitudes towards deafness and increase young Deaf people’s self-identity and belief in their capabilities, while also acting as language models for NZSL access and use.
  • Māori Deaf role models are also recognised as supporting many Māori Deaf students to gain their first introduction to Māori culture, once acquisition of an accessible language (i.e. NZSL) has started.
  • Camps are identified as being a vital part of the journey for the Deaf Youth community with many expressing that camps foster access to language and identity development, due to bringing people together for a shared social experience. These events appear to support youth to feel proud to be Deaf, which at other times in their life can feel more like a hindrance and a barrier. However, it was recognised that the community need outcomes like this more often, so that they continue to make these personal gains and feel connected at all times of the year.
  • There is recognised value for the Deaf youth community to have access to practical life skills to support them to be well-functioning adults in society.

What the deaf youth community are wanting / future directions


The key principles for effective action as identified by the respondents in this sample include improving early acquisition and access to NZSL, further promotion of Deaf awareness and Deaf culture to support identity development and NZSL promotion in the wider community, having a specialised youth service accessible in NZSL and practical learning to support transition into adulthood.

Access to NZSL from a young age – language deprivation is a key factor

  • Deaf children and their families/whānau need earlier acquisition and access to NZSL and NZSL support. Easier pathways are needed for families who are wanting to access NZSL.
  • Educational and medical professionals need to view Deaf children as part of a linguistic and cultural group.
  • Access to NZSL needs to occur consistently throughout New Zealand, so children living in more remote areas have better access.
  • More outreach support is needed for young Deaf people in mainstream settings to ensure they have access to NZSL, Deaf culture and identity support.
  • Improving NZSL acquisition and access for Deaf children and young people who have additional learning or physical disabilities.
  • Including NZSL in the New Zealand Curriculum so that all students in New Zealand have the opportunity to acquire knowledge of NZSL and Deaf culture.

Fostering Deaf awareness and Deaf culture to support NZSL promotion

Educating people and professionals to view Deaf children as part of a cultural and linguistic group, with an accessible language

  • Access to the Deaf community –to support young Deaf people and their families to connect more with the Deaf community
  • Specific teaching of Deaf culture and positive identity development for Deaf children and youth is needed throughout their education
  • More specific teaching to the general community of Deaf culture and Deaf being viewed as a linguistic/cultural group, to support the value and sacredness of NZSL
  • Deaf children of all ages need access to Deaf role models. Connecting with the older Deaf community/ Deaf role models as a key language and cultural resource

Accessible specialised service and supports through NZSL

  • Specialised youth services throughout New Zealand need to consider how their services are accessible to the Deaf Youth community. Or the Deaf Youth community need accessible youth-specific services throughout New Zealand.
    • Specialised support for ‘youth issues’, with access through NZSL and in-depth understandings of Deafness and Deaf culture.
  • Deaf Youth Camps
    •  Deaf Youth camps to continue as a valuable form of support for many people.
    • Extended to include some more practical workshop learning that can help future and career planning, while keeping a focus on being fun and relaxed
  • Opportunities to bring youth together more for learning opportunities – e.g. youth social groups, learning workshops to encourage independence and to support success after leaving school.
  • To support youth to learn and understand their rights around access to language to increase access to NZSL.
  • To encourage self-advocacy and empowerment to support independence

Practical learning to support transition into adulthood

  • General practical learning to support future planning and goals, accessible through NZSL, to be connected in a group with shared experiences, without any age-restricted barriers.
  • Workshops to support further learning of practical topics that help with the transition into adulthood and the daily functioning of young Deaf people. Fully accessible in NZSL, fun and frequent to bring everyone together often.
  • Priority topics identified: mental health and wellbeing, communication, Life Skills, Deaf culture and identity, social relationships, Deaf awareness and future jobs and study.
  • Need more focus on transition support particularly life skills, to prepare for life after leaving school and to support independence.
  • Need to support self-advocacy from a young age, so young Deaf children become independent and aware about their current support/access to NZSL.

Key points of the project

This project has provided an insight into some of the experiences and needs of a small sample of the Deaf Youth community in New Zealand.

  • Many young Deaf people appear to be accessing NZSL in their teenage years and therefore a significant amount of learning is expected to happen in a short amount of time to allow them to become proficient in an accessible language, while also transitioning through a time of significant change.
  • Some families reported a desire for themselves and their Deaf child to learn NZSL, however they did not have the support to gain acquisition and access. These limitations appear to be even more compounded for people living in more remote areas of New Zealand, outside of the larger cities.
  • As there are many contributing factors and historical links creating barriers for young Deaf people to acquire, access and use NZSL, it is a challenge to ascertain a clear way forward.
  • Deaf Youth are however identifying the gaps in their learning and recognising that they need more support through practical workshops to learn functional life skills and to help their transition into adulthood. Finding ways to limit the isolation of Deaf Youth, increasing access to NZSL from a young age and supporting positive identity development from Deaf role models were of high importance.
  • They identified vital supports, such as a specialised youth service accessible through NZSL with trained professionals was needed, as there are no clear services or supports for the youth community to go to when professional help or guidance is required.
  • Overall, much of the Deaf Youth community’s access and use of NZSL appears to be dependent on whether they acquired an accessible language at a young age, or not.

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