Some differences in Deaf people using interpreters

Deaf people are a varied group. Some Deaf people have different needs to be accommodated to ensure they effectively access information or a service.

Māori Deaf people

Deaf users of foreign sign language

Deaf people who have minimal language competence

Deafblind people

Some groups of Deaf people have particular requirements in using NZSL interpreter services. Understanding these differences will help ensure that effective communication happens and services can be accessed.

Māori Deaf people

  • If the spoken language of the setting is English, book a NZSL interpreter.
  • If the spoken language of the setting is Māori, book a trilingual interpreter (English/Māori/NZSL). Note: you will need to do this at least four weeks in advance. 
  • Check with the Deaf person what their preferences are first, if possible.

Māori Deaf people constitute a large proportion of the Deaf community in New Zealand (and at a higher percentage than Māori in the general population). NZSL is used by Māori and Pākehā Deaf people alike. Within NZSL, there is an increasing vocabulary of signs for Māori-specific concepts. If services specific to Māori are available, Māori Deaf people may prefer to access these services through a NZSL interpreter. Where the spoken language in the situation is English, Māori Deaf people can access services through a NZSL/English interpreter.

In situations where Māori is being spoken, an interpreter who is skilled in NZSL, Te Reo Māori and English is needed. These people are known as trilingual interpreters. Currently, very few NZSL interpreters are qualified to interpret from and into Māori. These few interpreters are often in great demand and will need to be booked at least four weeks in advance.

As there are very few trilingual interpreters, there may be none in your area. You may have to pay for the interpreter's travel costs and travel time in addition to their usual interpreting fee. If no trilingual NZSL interpreter is available and the service or event is mainly conducted in Māori, you could consider booking two interpreters who will work together (a spoken Māori-to-English interpreter and an English-to-NZSL interpreter). This last scenario would be more appropriate if prepared speeches are being given. This would allow faster interpretation, as the interpreters would not need to wait on each other to know what a speaker was saying and then interpret that information.

Deaf users of foreign sign language

  • Try to find a NZSL interpreter who is able to interpret in the foreign sign language.
  • If this is not possible, ask the booking agency or supporting agency for advice.
  • Other communication professionals, such as a relay interpreter may be able to help or in some situations a family member of the Deaf person supported by a NZSL interpreter.

Contrary to popular belief, sign language is not universal. Although there are some grammatical similarities between most sign languages, distinct sign languages exist in different countries. Users of one sign language will not necessarily understand someone using a different sign language.

Overseas visitors or recent immigrants who require a sign language interpreter may therefore not understand a NZSL interpreter.

Some NZSL interpreters have experience in sign languages other than NZSL. The interpreter booking agency may be able to help.

Some foreign sign languages are closely related to NZSL (such as British Sign Language and Australian Sign Language). A British or Australian Deaf person will usually be able to work with a NZSL interpreter. Other sign languages are not related to NZSL (such as American Sign Language or Japanese Sign Language).

If a NZSL interpreter with experience in the foreign sign language cannot be found, a relay interpreter may be able to help.

Deaf people who have minimal language competence

  • Inform the NZSL interpreter or booking agency if you are aware that a client has minimal language competence.
  • You may need to use additional communication strategies, such as using very simple phrases or visual aids.
  • It may be appropriate to book a relay interpreter. Ask the interpreter booking agency for advice.

A small proportion of Deaf people have not mastered either a signed or spoken language. They may have grown up isolated from other Deaf people from whom they could have learned sign language. They may also have had very rudimentary communication with hearing people around them.

As a result, they may have had poor access to education and experienced limited language development. Individuals in this situation may have difficulty expressing or understanding complex ideas, and have little understanding of conversational and social norms.

Although a Deaf person with minimal language competence may use some signs or English words, these words may be used in an idiosyncratic sense and only known to that person and people close to them.

The person may have difficulties with consistent grammar and may just use isolated words. Also, they may be unsure of what even simple questions mean (for example: what's your name? where do you live? how old are you? how long have you been feeling sick?).

If you are aware that a client of your service has minimal language competence, you need to advise the interpreter or booking agency of this in advance. However, it may only become clear at a meeting (where a NZSL interpreter is present) that the Deaf person involved has minimal language competence.

There may be other issues affecting a Deaf person’s ability to communicate, such as the fact that they are a recent immigrant, are Deafblind, or have experience of mental illness.

In situations where a Deaf person has minimal language competency:

  • The NZSL interpreter will tell you when they are not sure what is being expressed by the Deaf person.
  • Allow additional time for the meeting. It may take a good deal of time for the NZSL interpreter to make sure that the Deaf person understands what is being discussed.
  • Rephrase your questions and statements in the simplest possible terms. For example, include only one idea in each question. If possible, present options for responding (such as 'this or that?'), and do not mix different time frames (such as past and present) within one statement.
  • Use visual aids where possible. A pictorial sheet may be available explaining the most common procedures for your service. You could point to a date on the calendar when making an appointment time, or show medicine that the Deaf person is supposed to take, or show a picture of a building the Deaf person is meant to visit.
  • The Deaf person may not be able to read. Where possible, assist with filling in forms and book follow-up appointments while an interpreter or support person is present, rather than sending a letter or email to the Deaf person later on.
  • It may be appropriate to book a relay interpreter.

In some situations providing a NZSL interpreter alone is not sufficient to ensure effective communication. A Deaf person who works as an intermediary (or relay) between the interpreter and the Deaf person may be needed.

The role of the relay interpreter is to communicate the message using gesture and other visual strategies that are modified to suit the Deaf person. They clarify any unusual, foreign, or personal signs that the Deaf person is using which the NZSL interpreter will not understand.

You should consider using a relay interpreter if you are aware that the Deaf person has difficulty communicating using a NZSL interpreter, or if you suspect that this may be the case.

The use of relay interpreters is still relatively new in New Zealand, although it is increasingly common overseas. For example, it has been used in overseas courts and mental health situations. There is currently no training or qualification for relay interpreters in New Zealand.

Where a relay interpreter is required, you should talk with the interpreter booking agency.

Deafblind people

  • Check in advance which form of communication the Deafblind person uses, for example: NZSL with visual modifications; tactile NZSL and/or Deafblind finger spelling.
  • Book a NZSL interpreter with experience in that form of communication, or ask if the Deafblind person has a preferred communicator/guide.
  • Check seating and lighting arrangements.
  • Ask Deafblind New Zealand, or the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind for advice.

Deafblind people have both a vision impairment and a hearing impairment. They use a variety of communication strategies depending on the nature and extent of their vision impairment, exposure to NZSL and experience of Deaf culture.

For some Deafblind people, it is possible to ask the NZSL interpreter to modify their signing so that it falls within the visual field of the Deafblind person. Other Deafblind people communicate by placing their hands on the interpreter's hands and feeling the movements of the signs in this way. Another communication mode is for the NZSL interpreter to spell out words on the Deafblind person's hand using a special finger spelling alphabet. Check in advance which communication strategy is used by the Deafblind person, and then inform the booking agency or freelance interpreter. Ideally, book a NZSL interpreter who has experience in working with Deafblind people.

Appropriate lighting is especially important for Deafblind people. Check seating arrangements and lighting in advance with the Deafblind person and the NZSL interpreter.

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