Last week, 21-27 September, my community, the Deaf community is having a triple celebration. It is New Zealand Sign Language Week (NZSL), International Week of the Deaf and Wednesday, 23 September is International Day of Sign Languages. Normally NZSL Week is celebrated in May, but this year is was postponed due to COVID-19. The 2020 theme is “Sign Language is for Everyone”.
These three celebrations recognise the shared experience of Deaf people from around the world. It acknowledges the struggle the Deaf community, including Deafblind Sign Language users, have fought in order to simply have the right to use their natural language. In 2006 the NZSL Act recognised NZSL as an official language of New Zealand, alongside Te Reo Maori. This was the culmination of more than four decades of advocacy.
The history of Sign Language reflects why these celebrations are so important to us. In 1880, at what is now known as the infamous Milan Conference on Deaf Education, sign languages were globally banned in favour of oralism, a system which forced Deaf children to lip read and learn to speak. Not one Deaf person was consulted. What followed was a century of language suppression which had a devastating effect for generations of Deaf people around the world. Prior to this, Deaf people had been educated, successful and valued members of communities and societies around the world.
The passing of the NZSL Act was a huge step in restoring human rights and providing access to information for Deaf and Deafblind kiwis. It is because of the NZSL Act we now see Interpreters at important Government announcements. However, that is still a fraction of the information available to other people. It would be wrong to say that the NZSL Act has achieved full equality. Deaf people still have limited interpreting funding, many struggle to access education, employment and experience feelings of isolation which can lead to poor mental health outcomes. We can see many parallels with blind people and other groups with access needs.
Blind Low Vision NZ are the driving force behind the Access Alliance and their collective call is for a robust and enforceable framework for accessibility for all Kiwis. Recently, the Cabinet Social Wellbeing Committee agreed to push ahead with drafting an accessibility framework from now until May 2021. This is a major breakthrough in addressing the barriers that prevent one in four New Zealanders from fully participating in society.
I enjoyed celebrating NZSL Week and International Week of the Deaf this year and I also and hope we have another milestone to celebrate in the not too distant future – the passing of a new law with creates a fairer, more accessible and inclusive Aotearoa for all Kiwis.
Handwaves! (Deaf applause)