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Tariana Turia Speech - NZ Sign Language Inquiry

Hon Tariana Turia

Minister of Disability Issues

A new era in the right to sign – Human Rights Commission
Report of the New Zealand Sign Language Inquiry
Grand Hall;  Parliament Buildings; Tuesday 3 September 2013; 4.30pm

This is such a wonderful occasion to come together, to celebrate a new era; an era in which the language of the hands is being recognised as the key to communication and opportunity.

I want to firstly acknowledge our Human Rights Commissioner for Disability Issues; Paul Gibson; who is such a bold advocate; a passionate champion for people with disabilities.

This is a great day for our wider Deaf community; Deaf people and their families and I am so pleased that Robert Hewison, the President of Deaf Aotearoa; and Rachel Noble – Chief Executive of the Disabled Persons Assembly, are with us to mark this significant event.

And it is extremely important that we have Andrew Hampton, Deputy Secretary for the Ministry of Education speaking at this event.  The Ministry of Education has an important leadership opportunity along with other Chief Executives to act on the recommendations in this report.   I also pay tribute to Brendan Boyle who has been proactive and consistent in his determination to make this inquiry lead to actions right across the sector.

The report we launch tonight tells a mixed tale of anger and frustration; interspersed with a story of triumph and resilience.

It seems fitting to reflect on the words of the American civil rights activist, Reverend Jesse Jackson, “The problem is not that the deaf students do not hear.   The problem is that the hearing world does not listen”.

Over the pages of this report, we hear too many references to a world that has ignored the needs of those within the Deaf community.

Although the Sumner School for the Deaf in Christchurch opened in 1880, it would be some 99 years later before children in deaf school were allowed to use sign language.  This is an appalling history – deaf children were trained in speech articulation and lip-reading while the universal language of signing was forbidden. The only options available to them were employment in manual vocations – anything else was considered beyond them.

But this is where the history takes us on a new path.

For during this time, a clandestine, underground language of the hands was secretly thriving among students in playgrounds and the wider community.  Deaf New Zealanders were creating a movement of resistance - proudly defiant in the way they wanted to communicate through signing.

It came down to a battle between a deficit approach – whereby deaf people are defined by ‘not hearing’and a strengths based approach – which recognises the inherent dignity and identity of the deaf.   Let me leave you in no doubt –my focus is the latter.

But there was another key way in which Society was not listening to Deaf peoples – and that is through the approach that used to be taken in  education.

I am somewhat baffled by the fact that the New Zealand Sign Language Act we passed in 2006 was silent on the use of sign language in education. I clearly remember the passage of the Bill – and the rapturous waves of deaf people in the gallery when it was passed – earning universal recognition as a vital milestone for deaf communities.   

And so I can’t help but wonder why.  

Why – when deaf students were suffering from persistent under-achievement – did we not think about sign language as a foundation for change?

Why – when we knew improving education outcomes has a huge and tangible impact on employment outcomes and the right to a decent standard of living – did we not identify the importance of learning through sign language as a basic human right?

Language is so important in shaping the way we think, and what we think about.   It has often been said that the limits of my language are the limits of my world.   I am so pleased that the Education Ministry has picked up the challenge inherent in this report; and are already working on responses with the involvement of the Deaf community.

Education, of course, is not only the domain of schools and teachers – and I am delighted to see the emphasis given to supporting the essential role of families in helping deaf children to acquire language skills.

The report documents that most deaf children are born into hearing families – families who often lack any experience of deafness, and who have been thwarted by minimal resources and support, other than the odd evening class in adult education.

If language skills are not acquired early on there can be a host of adverse impacts for the deaf child and his or her family.   We’re talking about downstream effects such as negative impacts on the parent-child relationship; poor literacy; limited educational and career possibilities and communication in general.

A critical function recommended for the Expert Advisory Group is to increase the resources and support to enable the acquisition of sign language in early childhood; in language nests and within the home.

The Ministry of Social Development will form this group with other agencies over the next six months.   Its job is to take an open approach towards promoting and maintaining New Zealand Sign Language to ensure it has a strong and enduring future.

There are very exciting signals of change already evident.   This week, for instance, the Video Remote Interpreting initiative begins – essentially connecting up a New Zealand Sign Language interpreter with a face to face meeting between a government worker and a deaf person.  I am really looking forward to seeing this initiative make a big difference in supporting access to services in a timely manner.

Another element in building momentum is the involvement of deaf people alongside other disabled persons in the independent monitoring of the rights of disabled persons by disabled persons.

And the third factor in our favour, is the increasing demand for the Taste of Sign classes, and other community programmes which encourage people to learn to sign.   The Think Differently campaign which promotes initiatives to inspire positive attitudes and behaviours towards disabled persons has provided funding for New Zealand Sign language for the last three years, and has recently decided to increase its support for New Zealand Sign Language week in 2014.

All of these measures are very important but perhaps the greatest challenge left for all of us is to think how we can inspire and encourage an attitude of inclusion in our everyday lives?

How do we promote signing as a norm – creating in ourselves the expectation that is we truly value our family and friends, than we take the time out to learn – even a little – to sign and communicate with the deaf?

How else can we share our values, behaviours, histories, art, stories, traditions and laughter with one another if we overlook the value of language – whatever forms it takes.

I was somewhat staggered to learn that in 2006, 39% of deaf people under the age of 19 were Maori.   I am very interested to know how  whānau Māori are being equipped to support deaf children to gain access to language and education; including access to te reo Māori and to their unique cultural heritage, their marae, their hapū , their iwi.

Ultimately, we will know we are successful when people at all levels and in all settings are doing all that they can to create opportunities for learning and full participation.

This report is packed full of punch – a robust set of recommendations to follow; a key set of compliance requirements in legislation and policy; and a very comprehensive context for change set out through the history and the international comparisons shared in this report.

But I think one of the most profound moments for me in reading this report came out of a simple wish expressed by Paul Gibson in his foreword to the report – and it is the message I want to leave with us tonight.  

Paul described this report as a call to action to mark a new era in the right to sign.   He shared his wish-list of measures that would demonstrate the application of New Zealand sign language as visible in our streets, schools, hospitals and television. 

But most of all he imagined a time where any Mum or Dad – could tuck their small deaf child up in bed, and sign, ‘I love you’– without ever having to think twice; where every citizen can sign the national anthem and when the unique contribution of articulate deaf people are valued right across the land.   There are wishes I would love to turn into tangible outcome measures – and in the remaining time left for me as Disability Minister I pledge to do whatever I can to promote and support New Zealand Sign Language as a foundational language for deaf New Zealanders and their families.

Tēnā koutou katoa


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