New Zealand Sign Language: A cultural treasure

A rather late very happy New Year to all readers of Low Visionary.  May 2014 bring real progress on disability rights and accessibility all over the world.

Prompted by recent spirited discussion about the decline of New Zealand Sign Language,  and the equally spirited continuing debate about cochlear implants, here is my perspective on the value of New Zealand Sign Language in the New Zealand context.

I should say at the outset that I am not Deaf. Nor can I communicate in New Zealand Sign Language. The visual, spatial qualities inherent to it are beyond my visual capacity. I do know how to work with a Sign Language interpreter though. Since meeting the New Zealand Deaf community many years ago I have been fascinated by their language and history, as well as getting to know some great people.

Over those years I have learned a great deal, joined in with the celebrations of Deaf community victories, and supported their campaigns for access. The Deaf community are articulate, confident, outward looking, and one of the most creative communities around.

It is sad that, although New Zealand Sign Language is one of our official languages, it does not seem to be recognised widely as a national treasure. This was brought into sharp focus for me recently when thinking about Sign Language while working on an arts accessibility project.

Sign Languages should be treasured as precious cultural artefacts in their own right. In some settings they are. In 1993 I watched a riveting and inclusive one woman theatre performance in American Sign Language at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC. Closer to home in 1996, along with other international conference attendees in Auckland, I watched, spellbound, a skilled interpreter yodel, (in NZ Sign Language) along with the Topp Twins. She was as much a star as they were. I have attended other Signed performances, watched Sign singers, lots of Sign Language interpreted meetings and gatherings and enjoyed Deaf humour.

Yet more than twenty years after my first Deaf cultural encounter, and long after New Zealand Sign Language has become an official language, when I visit the web site of Te Papa Tongarewa,  our national cultural storehouse I find no trace of New Zealand Sign Language. There is lots of Maori content, probably not enough, and information in seven other languages besides English and Maori. Is it because being Deaf is associated with deficit rather than with language and culture? Is providing Sign Language seen as a cost which will add little value, rather than as a celebration of the linguistic and cultural heritage of a unique New Zealand community? How about providing information accessibly to New Zealand citizens who are entitled to it?

Kudos to the National Library which has recognised the importance of New Zealand Sign Language and decided that all exhibitions will be introduced in all our national languages. Kudos also to the theatres and arts organisations that have recognised and included Deaf language and culture in their work.  Others need to follow these examples. They could start by joining the activities during Sign Language Week celebrated in May each year.

The New Zealand National Anthem in New Zealand Sign Language, English and Maori. The video is an example of our three national languages, all of which are part of our history and culture.

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Three disability Christmas wishes

In looking back over 2013 it seems to have gone very fast, and been eventful and full on. Aside from some changes in my personal life there have been other interesting developments. I have continued with some work themes from previous years and become involved in some new areas of work. Working in arts access has been particularly interesting and fun.

As the years pass I am becoming impatient with the pace of change in the disability community. I think there is too much apathy, some self-satisfaction as well as lots of frustration. I worry that we could even be going backwards.

As it is the Christmas season, with all that means, secular and religious, and in accordance with the rules of things magical I have decided to make three Christmas wishes. In the hope they might come true – OK I am a born optimist – I will try and be realistic in my wishes for change. While I always hope for world peace, sadly it doesn’t look likely in the near future.

At the risk of being corny here are my three Christmas wishes.

  1. I wish that that disabled people’s organisations and disability service providers would pay serious attention to making their web sites and electronic information really accessible to the whole community of disabled people.
  2. I wish that disabled people’s organisations would be adequately resourced to enable them to be strong and independent, to develop their and their members’ capacity to represent our voices in a forceful and professional manner
  3. I wish that we as disabled people would be more kind and open towards each other, prepared to understand, support and celebrate the things about us that are different, while grasping and working together in strength and unity on those many big issues that unite us. Together we can do it all!

The magic may need some help from us. I will be foregoing New Year’s resolutions, (which I never keep, apart from the one I made some years ago never to make any more) in favour of these wishes. I hope others will help me make them come true.

But while we have a well-earned break I wish all readers, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, whether in sun or snow, a cheerful, peaceful, safe and restful holiday season, and a very happy New Year. Merry Christmas!

A spikey red pohutukawa blossom with green leaves. (The NZ Christmas tree.)

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Robyn Hunt wins Supreme Award at Attitude Awards

Hi everyone

I’m very pleased to announce that my AccEase colleague, Robyn Hunt,who authors most of the blog posts on this blog site has received public recognition for the work she does in the disability sector.

Robyn Hunt wining the Making a Difference Award at the Attitude Awards - with Jill Lane and Ruth Dyson

Robyn Hunt wining the Making a Difference Award at the Attitude Awards – with Jill Lane and Ruth Dyson

The Attitude Awards were held Robyn won the Making a Difference category award from 20 finalists and then was awarded the Supreme Award with the contenders being the winners of the other seven categories.

Robyn Hunt accepting the Supreme Award at the Attitude Awards

Robyn Hunt accepting the Supreme Award at the Attitude Awards

As you well know, Robyn is a tireless supporter of disability rights and has stuck to the task despite it being an area that gets little mainstream recognition.

The full report “Disability rights advocate wins Attitude Award” is on the TVNZ website.

Congratulations to Robyn, who is a most deserved winner!

Mike Osborne
Director – AccEase Ltd

PS – You can watch the full awards ceremony online – and the video controls are accessible.


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People First New Zealand Celebrates tenth anniversary

Sometime the community of disabled people is so busy fighting battles that we forget the gains we have made, and don’t give ourselves the cbanner-10-yrredit or the time to celebrate. Happily a recent celebration was an exception. We celebrated the tenth birthday of People First New Zealand as an independent organisation.

As I lislogo-PF2v2tened to the learning disabled members, advocates and officers of People First speaking, and generally running things, I was taken back to my childhood, when people with learning disabilities were mocked, not seen as “real people” and often “put away” in the depersonalised language of the day, as if they were objects you could literally put away somewhere and forget about. And people did. Contemporaries of mine have sometimes discovered they had siblings of whose existence they were totally unaware.

But out of all this came a movement, led by learning disabled people themselves. They demanded recognition and rights, from the grassroots right up to the United Nations. When I was first involved in the disability rights movement, to my shame, people with learning disabilities were not included, sometimes actively excluded. Now the last of the big institutions are closed, and learning disabled people are taking their rightful place at the disabled people’s rights table.

A selection of People First’s achievements over ten years, in no particular order;

  • Changing language from “intellectual disability” to “learning disability”
  • Working on the successful repeal of the discriminatory Disabled Persons Employment Promotion Act
  • Lobbying and marching for closing the big institutions, Kimberley was the last to go.
  • Members addressed international conferences and gave some stunning presentations at home.
  • Robert Martin was the first person with a learning disability to address the United Nations during negotiations for the Disability Rights Convention, (CRPD). I was there. It was a great, very moving speech.
  • A DVD about voting was made with the Electoral Commission
  • Employment advocates were trained. The award-winning world first Easy Read Individual Employment Agreement, satisfying all legal requirements, was produced.
  • People First is an important member of the CRPD monitoring mechanism, the Convention Coalition Monitoring Group, with other disabled people’s organisations, (DPOs)

There is still much to be done, but together we can do it all. The disability community joined People First to celebrate at Parliament, and to launch the new logo, web site and Facebook page. Later there was a full-on party where again people with learning disabilities were in charge, including the music.

Thanks People First for including us all in the celebrations. May the next ten years be even better!

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