Ripple effect

For the past two decades, Victoria’s New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) programme has been helping to make more New Zealanders understood.

This is in no small part down to Drs Rachel and David McKee, who lead the programme at Victoria and are celebrating 20 years of the University’s Certificate in Deaf Studies (Teaching NZSL). The programme is designed to train Deaf NZSL users to teach their own language. “We’ve had more than a hundred go through the course now and it’s having a ripple effect in the learning and teaching of NZSL in the wider community,” Rachel says.

Previously perceived as a peripheral language, New Zealanders are becoming increasingly familiar with NZSL. It became an official language of New Zealand in 2006 and today forms part of the school curriculum.

“Our Deaf students are fluent in NZSL when they begin the course, but they’ve often faced communication isolation within their family, school and wider community,” says Rachel. “They come here to learn how to articulate the language to others. They study concepts about Deaf community and culture, what their identity is as NZSL users and then how to teach NZSL to others.

“The course is life changing for many students who come through the programme. 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 our lecturers who are also Deaf removes many barriers and is really empowering.”

Between the 2006 and 2013 censuses, the total number of NZSL users decreased nationally, with the exception of a 37 percent increase in the Wellington region. Rachel says it is likely this can at least be attributed partly to the teaching and dissemination of NZSL awareness by the NZSL programme at Victoria.

This year, six additional government scholarships have enabled Māori Deaf students to take the Certificate in Deaf Studies. A significant proportion of the Deaf community is Māori and these scholarships recognise the official status of NZSL and that Māori Deaf are often doubly disadvantaged. To acknowledge the six Māori students in this year’s cohort, the final module of this year’s course began with a pohiri at Victoria’s Te Herenga Waka Marae, conducted in te reo Māori and NZSL.

“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 such as Deaf Aotearoa New Zealand,” says Rachel. “Now, with the benefit of the new scholarships we can strengthen NZSL teaching by Māori Deaf people in Maori 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.”