Today is the first International Day of Sign Languages IDSL.
I have been reflecting on the significance of sign language in my life.
I am hearing and come from a hearing family. For the first 16 years of my life my only encounter with sign language was fingerspelling that my friend and I would use to communicate when we didn’t want others to know what were saying. Other than that I had no idea that NZSL was such a thing.
Then when I was 16 years old I started attending camps in the school holidays and I met Vinny Thompson. She introduced me to her friends in the Deaf community and in turn I began learning NZSL. I found something that really connected with me. I had tried to learn French at school but was never really able to hold a conversation. My acquisition of NZSL was in a more natural way. I learnt in the community, not in night classes. I learnt by interacting with Deaf people.
I am forever grateful for the Deaf community’s patience with me in the early days, as I learnt their language.
Since 1994 I have spent a total of eight years studying and achieved my Dip Sign Language Interpreting; Bachelor of Education; Master of Special Education (Deaf). All of my tertiary studies have been with a focus on sign language and Deaf community.
I have dedicated my working life, to date, to this language and community and I have gained so much in return. Not least of which is an amazing husband! I truly feel blessed to have three children all of who have NZSL as their first language. For our two Deaf children this is so precious. We have been able to raise them in a home where NZSL is readily accessible to them. They have been able to acquire their first language without delay.
I cannot imagine my life without NZSL.
The theme for this year’s International Week of the Deaf is
‘With Sign Language everyone is included’.
These are the collective goals for both the International Week of the Deaf and the International Day of Sign Languages:
- Promote deaf people as unique in having both perspectives of disability and linguistic minority and that sign language and deaf culture strengthens multilingualism and are means of promoting, protecting and preserving diversity of languages and cultures globally.
- Reflect the principles of the CRPD in its recognition of sign languages as equal to spoken languages. Sign languages are fully-fledged natural languages, structurally distinct from spoken languages, alongside which they coexist.
- Emphasise sign language as a critical prerequisite to the full realisation of human rights for deaf people. Early access to sign language and services in sign language, including quality education available in sign language, is vital to the growth and development of the deaf individual and critical to the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals.
- When working with Deaf Communities, the principle of “nothing about us without us” must be considered and integrated.
Here in NZ we can be proud of the break throughs we have made with regard to NZSL and recognition of Deaf as a cultural/linguistic minority. We now have a national service for families who have Deaf or Hard of hearing children aged 0-5 years, to enable them to meet Deaf adults and begin to develop NZSL in the home Deaf Aotearoa First Signs. We also have a Cabinet appointed NZSL Board working on the promotion and maintainence of NZSL.
But we still have a long way to go.
For example, the meetings we were having with the powers that be in Deaf Education, in 2004 when Zoe was a toddler, we are now having with regard to Carter’s education.
For NZSL to be a strong and sustainable language we need to enable children (particularly deaf children) to acquire it naturally. We need create spaces where children can be together and learn in NZSL (aka Deaf Schools!). If we continue to isolate deaf learners and provide sporadic exposure to NZSL, we will continue to have a language at risk. This is something I am passionate about.
I want Carter to have an education in an environment that he can relax, be himself and learn in NZSL with Deaf peers. Not be mainstreamed, the odd one out and struggling to access the curriculum via intermittent access from a Teacher Aide/Communicator.
We are raising our children to be proud of who they are and the culture they belong to. I want people to see my children through the lens of ‘Deaf Gain’ not ‘hearing loss’. See the perspectives and talents they offer the world as visual people and not look at them as ‘impaired’ or ‘broken’.
NZSL is part of who I am.
I have had more years of my life using two languages than just one. We are raising three bilingual children – and in my day job I am working hard to make the vision and strategic direction of Deaf Aotearoa a reality.
This inaugural International Day of sign languages I will be spending with my family and the Wellington Deaf community at a fun event. I hope you are able to get involved in events in your area too!
Grab the opportunity to learn NZSL!