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Turia - New Zealand Sign Language Bill

New Zealand Sign Language Bill Tariana Turia; Thursday 23 February 2006

He ao kapua te rangi ka uhia, ma te huruhuru ka rere ai te manu - As clouds bedeck the heavens, so do birds need feathers to fly.

Madam Speaker, today we bear witness to the wonderful event of New Zealand Sign Language being wrapped around our deaf community, providing the warmth and protection of one's language as a primary means of being in the world.

It has often been said that the limits of our language are the limits of our world.

Today that world becomes progressively larger for some 28,000 people who are already familiar with New Zealand sign language. It also became larger for their families, their communities and indeed for us all.

It is a most important day, a day which inevitably draws me back to August 1987 to the passing of the Maori Language Act which declared Maori an official language of New Zealand.

In today conferring that same official status to New Zealand Sign Language, we acknowledge the political will, the determined commitment of the Deaf community, and the recognition of all the specialist support that has made this possible. I want to particularly commend the Minister for having the insight and the fortitude to carry this through. Tena koe Ruth.

Thinking back to that day in 1987, from that point on, the Maori Language Act made it possible to recognise te reo Maori in law and allows it to be used in the Courts. From the basis of that Act, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo is charged with promoting Maori language as a living language and as an ordinary means of communication".

It is from the normalizing of Maori language as an ordinary language, as a living language, that our world changed. There are now some 136,000 speakers of te reo - and indeed I would hasten to suggest that even in this House, every single Member will have been influenced by the expansion of the use of te reo.

We have seen maiden speeches delivered entirely, or major parts spoken in te reo. We have observed the way Members have sought to address pronunciation issues. We have seen familiar greetings -tena koe, ka kite, he patai taku; becoming more commonplace. And the Standing Orders committee will shortly be considering the important initiative of simultaneous translation to initiate facilities for immediate comprehension of te reo. Our world is expanding daily.

And who knows, one day New Zealand sign language may be normalised to the same extent.

It is a long way off from the days when Naida Glavich was threatened for dismissal for saying "Kia ora"; or our mothers and fathers strapped for speaking their native tongue.

And yet for another significant population within Aotearoa, the same but different experiences of marginalization, of isolation, of prejudice will also have shaped their memories of expressing themselves in their language.

We have heard the stories of deaf children's hands being strapped behind their backs to stop them signing. The existence of sign language for years was ignored by officialdom.

This new Bill confronts all those days gone by through establishing New Zealand Sign Language with the official recognition of a national language, with the purpose of giving it proper status and of giving the Deaf access to interpreters for legal proceedings.

The Maori Party celebrates this historic break-through, and will support this Bill through its passage in the House.

We are pleased for those for whom it serves - but it doesn't go far enough. For we want today, to give recognition to a very significant population within the Minority deaf culture.

Hearing loss is an important issue that impacts in a major way on our mokopuna, tamariki and whânau. Research would suggest that Maori who are deaf make up thirty per cent of the Deaf community.

For our tamariki and mokopuna the results are particularly stark. In 2001, Maori children under 19 comprised a record 48% of the deafness notifications, despite being only 19% of the population. That is almost half of all notifications of deafness in this nation, were for Maori children.

If we want to think of closing the gaps, this might be a good place to start. For in the age group of 15-24 years; hearing disability afflicts young Maori at a rate which is 3.5 times more than non-Maori.

So how do these high numbers of Maori Deaf fare in a world which is frequently dismissive or unprepared to face the challenge inherent in taking on other means of communicating? Isolated from the very essence of who they are.

The world of Maori deaf is constrained by linguistic and cultural boundaries which could be broken down through understanding of sign language - and of te reo Maori.

One of the most profound experiences in my life is when a young man came into my office, and having stood up to mihi to me, signed his waiata, and not a sound was heard. I was deeply moved as it made me understand how isolated the Maori deaf can be from the Maori world. I appreciated that the support he had alongside him, was vital in helping us to be able to understand. The significance of this Bill today, is that for Maori Deaf, official recognition increases the likelihood of being able to use New Zealand Sign Language at hui, marae, tangi, and increase their access to te reo, tikanga and whakapapa. Inevitably of course, the crunch issue lies in resourcing constraints.

As I noted earlier, Maori are over-represented in the Deaf Community and yet there is a shortage of Maori teachers, signers, court interpreters and community aid. A particular concern that the Maori Party would like to see addressed in further advancing the legislation, is the complete inability of the Bill to address the issue of trilingual interpreters and to recognise trilingual interpretation (Maori-Sign-English).

The numbers of trilingual signers are few and far between; and the AUT Trilingual Interpreting course was cut as part of The Government's so-called race-based funding cuts of 2004.

Yet another example of the "ethnic targeting no-go zone" promoted by this Government. The tragedy of this, is that it denies Maori Deaf access into Maori communities where te reo is used.

Maori Deaf have every right to understand the true meaning of the processes and korero that occur on marae. Sign language interpreting helps bridge those communication gaps. This Bill must make provision for the urgent need to recruit, train and retain Maori student interpreters.

This is an idea that was first raised at the Taumata Matauranga hosted by Ngati Tuwharetoa paramount chief Tumu Te Heuheu in 2001. The hui brought forward the idea of offering scholarships to train sign language interpreters fluent in te reo Maori. Such scholarships are practical solutions which respond to the dreams and aspirations of our whanau for their children to access kohanga reo and kura kaupapa, through the support of NZSL interpreters fluent in te reo. Madam Speaker, we know that there are some great things happening for Maori Deaf.

The initiatives at Ruamoko Marae and at AUT in supporting student sign language interpreters are exciting. We know also of the hard work of groups such as Te Roopu Waiora who are focused on the needs of Maori Deaf. We know also of the lack of Mâori Trilingual Interpreters, which causes those who are there, to feel as if they are pushing the proverbial up hill, as they wrestle with the bureaucracies and compliance demands.

Madam Speaker, the Maori Party is proud to promote wider recognition of te reo as the first and official language of the country. We welcome the inclusion of New Zealand Sign Language as another official language and we do so, particularly, under the opportunities for bi-literacy - or even tri-literacy - afforded to the nation by virtue of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

We know that Maori Deaf consider that the official recognition of NZSL will facilitate their access to Te Reo, which in itself is an article two right. The right to preserve te reo Maori as a taonga - both as the indigenous language of this country, but also as the appropriate language to carry Maori knowledge and contemporary Maori customs.

Official recognition of NZSL will also enable Maori Deaf access to equality of rights for all citizens, as anticipated by Article three of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Citizenship rights to inclusive social, housing and health services are critical for Maori Deaf and will be a huge factor in addressing chronic poverty levels.

Madam Speaker, our tupuna have often gifted us with whakatauki to convey a message about the world in which we inhabit. They are ways of conveying the feelings, values, emotions, visions which serve to help mould our character and discover a universal truth. These language pictures are best expressed in te reo, but for the significance of today, I hope my concluding words will benefit from trilingual interpretation.

Anei tatou na ko te pa ano tatou na he ra ki tua. Here we are in the night, comforted by the day soon to follow. There is light ahead....


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