Celebrating twenty years of Deaf Studies at Victoria University

Victoria University’s New Zealand Sign Language Studies (NZSL) programme is celebrating two decades of helping to make more New Zealanders understood.

photo of Certificate in Deaf Studies 2017 Māori Scholarship students

Victoria’s ‘Certificate in Deaf Studies: Teaching NZSL’ is designed to train Deaf NZSL users to teach their own language. “We’ve had 164 students go through the course now and it’s having a ripple effect in the learning and teaching of NZSL in the wider community,” says Dr Rachel McKee, Director of NZSL Studies at Victoria.

This year, six new scholarships from the Government’s NZSL Fund have enabled Māori Deaf students to take the Certificate in Deaf Studies. A significant proportion of the Deaf community are Māori and these scholarships also recognise the official status of NZSL, which became an official language of New Zealand in 2006.

“With the benefit of these scholarships we can strengthen NZSL teaching by Māori Deaf people in Māori contexts, whether it’s through teaching their whānau or hapū, or in marae and wānanga. Communication is the primary thing that will connect Māori NZSL users with their heritage,” says Dr McKee.

Victoria’s Deaf students are fluent in NZSL when they begin the course, but often they have struggled to communicate effectively with their family, school, and wider community, says Dr McKee. “They come here to learn how to teach the language to others. They study concepts about Deaf community and culture, to be able to articulate their identity as NZSL users, as well as principles and strategies for teaching NZSL.”

Dr McKee says the course is life changing for many students. She says once they gain a clearer understanding of themselves as bilingual people, and learn practical skills for how to teach NZSL to hearing people, their opportunities open up. Most of the students leave school without expecting to attend university, and so the experience of being taught in their own language by Victoria’s lecturers who are also Deaf, removes many barriers and is very empowering.

“Our graduates have gone on to teaching roles in schools and higher education, supporting families with deaf children, as well as advocacy roles with organisations like Deaf Aotearoa New Zealand,” says Dr McKee.

Between the 2006 and 2013 censuses, the total number of NZSL users decreased nationally, with the exception of a 37% increase in the Wellington region. Dr McKee says it is likely that this increase in Wellington is partly the result of the work being done by the NZSL Studies programme at Victoria.