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.