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Deaf Children Victims Of Bureaucratic Turf Wars

Press Release
Wellington Association for Deaf Children
For Immediate Release
Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Deaf Children Victims Of Bureaucratic Turf Wars

The Wellington Association for Deaf Children is calling upon the Government to provide free New Zealand Sign Language classes for all deaf children and their families. The New Zealand Federation for Deaf Children supports the parents in their demand.

"In ever increasing numbers our children are missing out on the opportunity to learn to communicate during the short but vital period in which they must do so," says Wellington Association president Dr Tricia Laing.

Dr Laing says the Association and Federation were pleased to note One News’s six o’clock news item on Saturday 11 March and the Dominion Post story on Monday 13 March reporting on the crisis facing deaf parents. The message in both stories was that the Government is neglecting to make sure that all deaf children have language.

The message came from a Wellington Association for Deaf Children camp held at the weekend. Hearing families, deaf children, teenagers and adults were at the camp to learn sign language. Parents of deaf children often have no experience of deafness and in most cases no ability in sign language.

"The simple truth is that our children are falling through a bureaucratic hole somewhere on Molesworth Street," Dr Laing says. "Officials at the Ministries of Health, Education and Social Development all agree that it is vitally important for our children to learn to communicate, but each ministry thinks it is another's responsibility," Dr Laing said.

"Meanwhile our children are suffering. Children who cannot communicate are isolated, they suffer major identity problems get frustrated and often act out in destructive ways to themselves and others.

"In the long run it will be the community as a whole that will have to pick up multi-million costs of caring for adults with communication difficulties, difficulties that can easily be overcome if the resources are made available at the right time," Dr Laing says.

At this weekend's camp Drs Rachel and David McKee from Victoria University’s Deaf Studies programme, and Deaf Resource staff from van Asch Deaf Education Centre taught around 30 parents basic sign language for parenting. Meanwhile teenagers practised their signing skills with fluent signers.

"Families need to learn sign language so they can communicate with their deaf children early and keep them safe," Dr Laing says.

"Deaf children need government support to learn language whether they use hearing aids or cochlear implants. Implants are fantastic but they are not on their own a solution for our children."

Parents and the deaf education centres have been advocating for free sign language classes for deaf children and their families for a long time.

"We have been getting nowhere because government departments are involved in a ‘turf war’," Dr Laing says.

"Recently an already approved request for funding to enable the parents of deaf children to learn sign language got lost on the desk of someone in the Ministry of Social Development. This slip-up has placed these services in a crisis situation threatening their very survival. This level of uncertainty over services is simply unacceptable for already stressed parents," Dr Laing says.

On Friday 10 March The Waikato Times ran a story, ‘Sign Language Backed for Implant Baby’. The story reported the plight of a one-year-old on a waiting list for a cochlear implant. While he waited no funding for language and cognitive development through learning sign language was available.

"If you are on the waiting list for a cochlear implant it’s the Ministry of Health’s problem. If you have a profoundly deaf pre-school child it is the Ministry of Education's problem or possibly the Ministry of Social Development's. There needs to be coordination of these services. The parents and the children in need are the same," Dr Laing says.

"At present if you access the education curriculum using sign language then you may be eligible for full funding from the Ongoing Renewal Resources Scheme via the special education service. But in reality sign language support is only available in some centres, and where it is available parents have to first pay for themselves and their deaf children to learn before they can access the scheme.

"A cynic might suggest that the Ministry of Education is saving itself money by failing these children in their early childhood. Because they cannot sign they are then ineligible for assistance in receiving an actual education," Dr Laing says.

"Simply put the Government is not taking responsibility to make sure all deaf children have language," Dr Laing says.

"Meanwhile if hearing parents with their deaf children and deaf adults want to get together to pass sign language from one generation of deaf culture to another it is the Ministry of Social Development that might help. To date however, charitable organisations have provided the bulk of funding for sign language mentoring and family camps."

Dr Laing says that the underlying problem is that no one takes responsibility to make sure deaf children acquire language. "Parents now demand that sign language classes for both children and parents be made free," she said.

NOTES TO EDITORS: Parents of deaf children in the Christchurch andWellington region are available to talk to media directly to provide human interest angles on these stories. Rachel and David McKee are also available to discuss these issues. Finally there are overseas experts in the field available for interview.

In the first instance please contact Dr Tricia Laing 027 476 6450 or plaing@xtra.co.nz

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