Did you know that New Zealand has, along with English and te reo Māori, a third official language? Actually, it’s been that way since 2006!
Engaging television, online and print advertisements may have recently caught your eye and alerted you to the fact that 8 – 15 May is New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) Week in 2017. This may have even spurred you on to learn some signs yourself, or plan to do so together with your students. You may have decided to learn greetings and maybe some signed songs — and perhaps even incorporate sign and gesture into your daily teaching practices. Ka pai! It’s fun and worthwhile. But what if we dig a little deeper? What other opportunities does NZSL Week offer us? What do we know of Deaf culture — or even that ‘it’s a thing’?
The TKI Thumbs Up! website describes some of the distinct cultural characteristics of the NZ Deaf community that you may not be aware of:
“Deaf culture is not based on family culture or ethnicity. There are some multi-generational Deaf families, but not all the people in families with Deaf members are deaf themselves. For this reason, many hearing people also belong to the Deaf community, use NZSL for communication with Deaf people, and identify with the Deaf community.
Only about ten percent of Deaf children have Deaf parents. This is why NZSL users ask about, or identify, family members as Deaf or hearing.
Māori Deaf have a unique dual identity. They belong to both the Māori community and the Deaf community. There is no separate Māori sign language, but there are Māori signs, for Māori concepts. Both Māori and Pākehā Deaf use NZSL as a common community language. Māori Deaf people have developed and continue to develop signs to express concepts relating to Māori culture in New Zealand.
Ethnicity is important in how Deaf people identify and describe people in NZSL, along with descriptions of other distinguishing features that a person may have. This helps to build a picture of the person in a way that helps others to recall them more easily, especially when the person who is being discussed is not present. Visual descriptions are so important that they are often used as permanent sign names, much as nicknames in other cultures, for example SHORT-HAIR, BIG-MOUSTACHE, and SKINNY. Physical descriptions rarely cause offence in the Deaf community. It is generally acceptable to describe someone as fat because this uses a visual feature in a way that creates a more friendly and relaxed connection with the person. However, excessive or overly exaggerated signs can cause offence.”
For schools, centres, and kura, new educational e-resources are being created to support Deaf learners in culturally-responsive ways. For example, as stated on the TKI Literacy Online site, “the Ministry of Education collaborated with Deaf Aotearoa to develop selected Ready-to-Read titles as e-books. These apps are targeted resources intended to support effective guided and shared reading instruction for NZSL users. They are available through iTunes or GooglePlay and are free to download.”
Another recent special development is an exciting new quad-lingual e-book:
“Rūaumoko — The Rumbling Voice, is an interactive educational digital book narrated by Deaf Māori students in Te Reo Turi and New Zealand Sign Language. It tells the story of Rūaumoko, The Māori God of Earthquakes, and looks at the relationship of this deity to Deaf Māori people.
Produced as an educational resource, this digital book was developed over an intensive five-day workshop held in conjunction with the Ministry of Education, Kelston Deaf Education Centre, CORE Education Ltd, and KIWA Digital.” (KIWA)
So, have you ever thought about:
- The difference between being deaf and being capital-d Deaf, which indicates people who are members of the ‘historical and cultural community of deaf people and who use a natural sign language’ (Marschark, 2007)?
- How NZSL initially emerged from and through an ‘underground’ movement of culture (as did overseas natural sign languages)?
- The role that gesture and facial expression play as part of signing?
- How you can appropriately get the attention of a Deaf person?
- The fatigue that comes through the constant visual load that deaf/Deaf people process?
- The differences involved in language acquisition and use for those who are deaf from birth, compared to those who are deafened later in life?
- The special cultural connections that our relatively small NZ Deaf community has developed via Van Asch and Kelston Deaf Education Centres, and local Deaf Clubs?
- Ways of communicating with Deaf people in a world set up for the hearing, compared to ways that Deaf people integrate language and culture when interacting with each other in everyday situations?
- The importance of open visual spaces and light placement, and absence of ‘busy’ clothing patterns, so that signers can see messages clearly?
- What communication supports need to be in place for Deaf people and their families during emergencies?
- The range of levels of hearing impairment and deafness that may need to catered for in our learning and teaching environments (for students, staff, and whanau/community)?
NZSL Week is a great opportunity to highlight these, and many other ways, that we can learn to be culturally responsive to Aotearoa’s Deaf community. Difference, not deficit or disability, is the key focus. So, let’s explore the websites, games, and challenges that Deaf Aotearoa have provided. Watch the inspiring Hearing Hands YouTube clip. Dip into the official New Zealand Sign Language in the Curriculum document. Talk to our PLD facilitators about ideas for making learning communities more inclusive for New Zealanders who have our third official language as their first language. Seek and reach out to members of the Deaf community who cross paths and journey through life with us. And, if you missed out on the free NZSL taster classes this year, make sure that you get in quickly in 2018!
- McKee, R. (2001) People of the Eye. Bridget Williams Books: Wellington.
- Marschark, M. (2007) Raising and Educating a Deaf Child (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press: New York.
Thumbs up image CC0 on Pixabay
Rūaumoko — The Rumbling Voice cover images: used by permission from KIWA