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New Zealand Sign Language Bill first reading

Hon Ruth Dyson
22 June 2004 Speech Notes

New Zealand Sign Language Bill first reading

Mr Speaker, I move that the New Zealand Sign Language Bill now be read a first time. At the appropriate time I intend to move that the Bill be referred to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee.

This Bill provides official recognition of New Zealand Sign Language, the unique language of Deaf New Zealanders.

New Zealand Sign Language is the natural visual and gestural language of over 7,000 Deaf New Zealanders.

Mr Speaker, I speak on behalf of the Deaf people of New Zealand to whom New Zealand Sign Language and Deaf culture belong. We know that language and cultural issues are best represented by members of that culture. Ideally, this Bill would be presented to the House by a Deaf Member of Parliament. In the absence of a Deaf Member of Parliament I am honoured to do this.

Deaf people make up a distinct and dynamic cultural group. New Zealand Sign Language is central to their culture. Deaf culture, like all cultures, brings together a rich body of distinct customs, mannerisms, art, humour and history, as well as language. I have attended Deaf community events and am constantly impressed with their strong sense of community.

New Zealand Sign Language is a real language. It has its own grammatical structure different to that of English or Maori. Contrary to popular misconception, it is not a collection of gestures or mime. It is like all other languages in that it can communicate a full range of concepts.

Sign languages are not universal. This means that New Zealand Sign Language is unique to New Zealand. It is not used anywhere else in the world. New Zealand Sign Language is also unique because it includes signs that express concepts from Maori culture. Deaf Maori describe New Zealand Sign Language as a tool for accessing their Maori language and culture.

Mr Speaker, the introduction of this Bill to the House is very timely. The New Zealand Deaf community has been seeking official recognition of their language for 20 years. This moment would not be occurring without their advocacy. I commend them for their drive and persistence.
Historically, in New Zealand and around the world, the use of sign language was actively prohibited. This was a result of long standing misconceptions that sign languages were not real languages, and were inferior to spoken languages. Today, linguistic research confirms that sign languages are real languages.

Internationally, a few countries have officially recognised their native sign languages. Most countries, however, have not yet achieved this. By passing this Bill, we will be setting an example of best practice. There has already been significant international interest in this Bill.
The New Zealand Sign Language Bill that we have before the House today was built up from the Deaf community. A Deaf Advisory Group was established. Then under the advice of the Advisory Group, officials travelled to the main Deaf communities around New Zealand seeking their guidance.

These consultation processes provided a wealth of information and clear directions for a New Zealand Sign Language Bill. Consultation also highlighted why official recognition of New Zealand Sign Language is fundamental to ensuring the dignity of Deaf people.

Deaf people report that they experience language barriers when accessing government services. Consultation showed that government agencies’ perceptions about the accessibility of their services were very different from the actual experiences of Deaf people.

For example, Deaf people report sometimes being unable to access interpreters in legal proceedings.

In education, some deaf children are unable to access the curriculum via New Zealand Sign Language. Upon finishing school Deaf people are often unemployed or under-employed. Deaf women report difficulties in accessing sexual and reproductive health services.
Many of these barriers reinforce each other in a cyclical manner. Poor access to New Zealand Sign Language early in life contributes to poor educational achievement. This in turn limits employment opportunities, access to public information and services, and participation in society.

Mr Speaker, this Bill clarifies the legal status of New Zealand Sign Language. As demonstrated by consultation with the Deaf community, under the current law, there are serious problems with the status of New Zealand Sign Language.

A gap in our human rights laws means that Deaf people’s right to use their language is not protected. Deaf people have the legal right to an interpreter in some situations, but not in others.

Mr Speaker, this Bill declares New Zealand Sign Language to be an official language of New Zealand. It has the further objectives of promoting and maintaining New Zealand Sign Language.

Official recognition of New Zealand Sign Language will not affect the status of New Zealand’s other two official languages, English and Maori. It will not affect the rights of any other linguistic minorities in New Zealand.

Many languages are spoken in New Zealand, and the Bill is not intended to diminish the status of any of these. These languages generally share a common feature. That is, they are legally recognised in their home countries or countries of origin. Giving New Zealand Sign Language recognition in its home country will give it equal status with spoken languages.

Mr Speaker, the Bill provides the right to use New Zealand Sign Language in legal proceedings where a person’s first or preferred language is New Zealand Sign Language.

The Bill includes a general regulation-making power to provide for any matters that may be necessary for its administration. For example, regulations may be needed to prescribe competency standards for interpreters in legal proceedings. Work is underway to ensure that standards of interpreter competence in legal proceedings can be implemented by the time the Bill is passed.

The Bill does not impose any specific rights or obligations apart from the right to use New Zealand Sign Language in legal proceedings. The level of social exclusion experienced by Deaf people suggests a need to protect and enforce their linguistic rights in many different situations.

For this reason, the Bill sets out principles to guide government agencies in how to give effect to the provisions in the Bill. The principles include that government services and information should be made accessible to the Deaf community, and that the Deaf community should be consulted on matters that affect their language.
Progress reports can monitor the implementation of the Bill’s principles. Rather than creating a new reporting mechanism, the Government considers it appropriate to use the existing mechanism of the New Zealand Disability Strategy. The Bill states that the Minister for Disability Issues can report on progress in implementing the principles of the Bill when reporting on the Disability Strategy.

The Bill will assist in implementing the New Zealand Disability Strategy. The vision of the Disability Strategy is of a society that highly values the lives of disabled people and continually enhances their full participation.

The New Zealand Sign Language Bill will help remove barriers that prevent Deaf people from contributing to society. The Disability Strategy identified negative attitudes as the biggest barrier to participation. The Bill will go some way in influencing the attitudes of society in recognising and valuing New Zealand Sign Language.

This Government is committed to equal rights for disabled people, including giving legal status to the language of Deaf people.

The New Zealand Sign Language Bill also fulfils the Labour party’s promise to recognise New Zealand Sign Language.

Mr Speaker, this Bill is a tremendous achievement for both the Deaf community and the New Zealand Government. However, legislation alone is not enough to reduce the inequalities experienced by Deaf people. Deaf people report language barriers in every facet of their daily lives.

The Deaf community has highlighted four priority areas that need immediate and long-term improvements. These areas are education, health, employment and public broadcasting. Further work is being done to develop detailed plans for the progressive removal of language barriers for Deaf people in these priority areas.
One way language barriers can be removed is to utilise the services of qualified sign language interpreters like we have in the House here today. However, I wish to stress that interpreters are not the whole solution. Public information is largely inaccessible to Deaf people, as English is their second language. The average English reading age of Deaf adults is that of an 8 or 9 year old.

To make information more accessible we need to translate written information into plain English, and use modern technologies, such as video conferencing and signed video clips on the internet and on television.

Mr Speaker, in conclusion I want to reiterate that this Bill is a monumental milestone for the Deaf community. This Bill gives due honour and respect to Deaf people and their unique language and culture. By declaring New Zealand Sign Language to be an official language of New Zealand the Government is acknowledging the Deaf community’s presence, their rights and their equal value in New Zealand society.

I commend this Bill to the House.

ENDS

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