Govt launching first NZ sign language-led consultation to amend law

For the first time Deaf Kiwis will be able to consult on law changes about their language, through a process led in their language.

1News can reveal the Government is looking at amending the 2006 New Zealand Sign Language Act to better protect the language and improve access to it.

Disability Issues Minister Poto Williams hopes it’ll reflect the Government’s commitment to strengthening its partnership with the Deaf community.

By consulting with an NZSL-led approach and prioritising Sign Language above English, Deaf Kiwis feel their voice will be heard.

NZSL Board Chairman Rhian Yates said it’s significant that “it’s not just a translation of an English-based process”.

Deputy Chair Catherine Greenwood said usually English sessions and material comes first, and it’s translated afterwards.

But doing it this way, she said, the community feels validated.

“I feel like I’m being asked about my perspective, my thoughts, and being able to express it in my language, so I feel on par with everybody else.

“I feel like I have gained equality by this process being NZSL-led.”

Williams said: “What we would like to see is Sign Language users really engaging in the consultation process, that’s why the process has been set up to be accessible to them.

“They are first and foremost our priority, but also other people who are interested in protecting and promoting the language.

“It is a language that is endangered, so we must do everything we can.”

Williams said it won’t be the last time there’s an NZSL-led approach.

Yates said: “Really this isn’t just about recognition of NZSL itself, it’s also recognition Deaf identity, Deaf culture and our Deaf community as a whole.”

Since the NZSL Act came into law in 2006, Aotearoa has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, established the NZSL board and launched the NZSL Strategy 2018 – 2023.

Now, the board would like law changes to give it more power to monitor and promote the language.

Greenwood said to do that, she’d like to see more Deaf Kiwis taking leadership roles in Government.

Williams said there could be a similar system to what there’s been for te reo.

“Having a commission or a structure in place allows for us to be sure that it is protected, that Government is accountable and other agencies too.”

Williams pointed out that she’s also keen to hear from Turi Māori and their whānau about how the NZSL Act could better reflect Te Tiriti o Waitangi and support the leadership of Turi Māori.

“This is why there will also be three in-person hui for Turi Māori and their whānau.

“We have limited numbers of interpreters able to support them, for example if they were participating at marae, and we need to build that workforce.”

She wants to see the number of NZSL users to grow, and a greater supply of interpreters across the country too.

Currently there’re 23,000 people who use NZSL, 5000 of whom were born Deaf.

Consultation sessions will be held in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington.

The process ends on 11 November 2022 and a bill to amend the NZSL Act is expected to be introduced into the House in mid-2023.

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