It has been three years since New Zealand Sign Language was made New Zealand's third official language. This week the Deaf community has been celebrating the recognition of their first language as having the same status as te Reo Māori and English, and we're on location at the official launch of New Zealand Sign Language week. To mark the occasion, Radio New Zealand is broadcast the programme in visual as well as audio formats.

So now it's official, what impact will the official status of NZSL have on deaf people, and on government? To discuss those questions, we're joined by World Federation of the Deaf president, Markku Jokinen and Deaf Aotearoa New Zealand chief executive Rachel Noble.

In the first segment Mike Gourley is interviewing Markku Jokinen. Mike is being interpreted into American Sign Language by Rachael McKee (Markku Jokinen does not know New Zealand Sign Language). Mike is also being interpreted into New Zealand Sign Language by Catherine Winfrey.

Markku is responding in American Sign Language, which is being interpreted into English by Rachel McKee who is in turn being interpreted into New Zealand Sign Language by Catherine Winfrey.

In the second and third segments Mike Gourley is talking to Rachel Noble. The interpreter is Micky Vale.

A full transcript of these interviews is available here.

Radio New Zealand would like to thank the interpreters.


One in Five - NZ Sign Language Week Special: Transcript

Radio New Zealand’s Mike Gourley interviews Markku Jokinen, president of the World Federation of the Deaf, and Rachel Noble, chief executive of Deaf Aotearoa New Zealand.

Mike Gourley: It’s three years since this country made New Zealand Sign Language its newest official language. And it’s the third time that the Deaf community has gathered to celebrate their language getting that status, sitting alongside te Reo Māori and English.

Kia ora koutou, welcome to the programme, I’m MikeGourley, here at the official launch of New Zealand Sign Language week. And to mark the occasion, we’re relaying the programme in both visual and audio formats, thanks to our website team.

First up, we have the World Federation of the Deaf president, Markku Jornikin … Jokinen, sorry. And we’re in a little interesting operation here of trilingual interpretation going from New Zealand to American Sign, from English, back to … back to English.

So welcome to the country, Markku, and welcome to the programme.

Now, New Zealand, I understand, is unique, in that it’s the only country which has made New Zealand … made sign language an official language. What advantage is there in that?

Markku Jokinen: Alright. That is a good question. Thank you for asking me that.

Many countries around the world, have given, have officially recognised a signed language. Perhaps at constitutional level - there are a number of countries that have done that - but New Zealand is the only country which has termed it differently and made New Zealand Sign Language an official language, which makes it equal in status with Māori and English. And that’s quite unique. Other countries have not achieved that.

So that really means a lot, on the part of your government. And there will be a lot of implications that may flow from that. It means it’s equally expressed as if an official language. And I have talked with the New Zealand Association of the Deaf, the president and coordinators, and discussed this, and we think that perhaps the government has not fully appreciated the implications this, of making it an official language. Because it is a very high status to give a language. It may imply things like support for New Zealand Sign Language research, um, services, teaching of sign language to parents of deaf children. There are a whole raft of areas where it may be applied. So that’s a very unique achievement for New Zealand.

Mike Gourley: That’s what I was thinking … that you may have the language as an official language, but in some other countries you actually might get better resources going into sign language, even though it’s not an official language. So the comparison would be, yes, it’s official, but maybe those implications aren’t realised and therefore the language is not sustained.

Markku Jokinen: Ok yes, in terms of funding and resources, I think um, that is an issue, but it’s also to do with awareness − about awareness, and attitude, and um, then willingness to take action, to make that official language meaningful. So it’s not just a question of resources and funding.

So making it an official language of New Zealand, it’s very important to think through what are the flow-on implications from that. For example research. We need linguistic research on sign languages. Do we have that? And, ah, do we need further work in that area, to make it more of an academic language? And do we need more funding to produce, um, DVDs and that sort of … dictionaries? Do we need perhaps to give more support to the language in schools and to be able to use New Zealand Sign Language as a mother tongue? Perhaps there is a need for more teachers to go to university and study the language, to be able to teach in it, as a first language for children. Or perhaps to make adaptations to existing school programmes. So it’s not simply a matter of funding. It’s also a matter of actions and strategies.

Mike Gourley: How fundamental is it that language, sign language, is recognised as the first language of Deaf people, to achieve human rights, in your view?

Markku Jokinen: Very very important. We have, um, a policy that says, for Deaf people to achieve human rights, this will in fact improve all human rights. To achieve language rights will achieve human rights. It affects the ability to access education in our language, information in our own language. Without those things we cannot achieve other basic human rights. It’s impossible. So language rights are very fundamental to all of our human rights.

Mike Gourley: Because of course also we have the report, the global report, on Deaf people and human rights, around the world. What are the main barriers that that report identifies to human rights happening for Deaf people?

Markku Jokinen: One very significant barrier, internationally, around the globe, is particularly in developing countries. There are many issues there, where there are children for example who never have access to any form of education. Maybe 90% of children in developing countries don’t access education. They can’t attend a school. So that’s one huge issue.

We can say that … I would say that within the last 20 years there has been development. There has been a lot of development of interpreting services and that’s been very positive to see. And that’s continuing. But there are still questions around who pays for interpreting services and not all governments are willing to fund that. In some countries associations pay, or deaf individuals have to support that. So there’s still a lot of development in that area needed.

A third area would be the need for more awareness amongst the hearing public. Just about the barriers that Deaf people face, in life, and just achieving basic rights. So there are many problems around that to do with lack of awareness. And Deaf people in many places are still, um, very disadvantaged. And there’s a real need to work on just a lot of basic issues like that.

Mike Gourley: Thank you very much. Now I understand that you have quite an important function to attend at parliament. Question time or something like that. So . . .

Markku Jokinen: Fine. Thank you very much for inviting me to be on your programme and for the interview. And good luck with your work.

Mike Gourley: Thank you. That’s World Federation of the Deaf president Markku … Jokinen, Jokinen. Have to get my Finnish [laughs] perfected a bit.

Ok. So we’re going do a bit of reshuffling of interpreters.

Markku Jokinen: I would just like to, yeah, to have my name signed, which is much shorter in sign language. Markku.

Mike Gourley: Markku. Thank you.

So we’re going do a bit of a reshuffle of interpreters and invite the next guest for the programme, who is the chief executive of Deaf Aotearoa New Zealand. And that’s Rachel Noble, who has been heavily involved, I imagine, in the ceremonies that have been happening, not only here in Wellington, but also of course in Auckland and Christchurch. So, welcome to the programme Rachel.

The theme for this year’s New Zealand Sign Language week is “It’s in your hands”. What do you mean by that?

Rachel Noble: “New Zealand Sign Language is in your hands” is a very important theme for us, because language is most literally in our hands, but it’s also important because it shows the shared responsibility we have about language. And we need our own people to take responsibility for the language prospering, to make sure that Deaf people have access to interpreters, that information is available in New Zealand Sign Language, and in order to achieve that we all have to work together.

Mike Gourley: I was thinking about the history that we got today, of sign language in New Zealand in particular, and it struck me how similar it was to what happened to te Reo Māori, over the last century, that people were not allowed to use that language. What was that like for Deaf people in New Zealand − to not be able to use their first language?

Rachel Noble: I was one of those people, growing up when sign language was not allowed to be used, or people thought it was a low status language, or not even a language. I remember when I went to high school, and at that time they started recognising that New Zealand Sign Language was an actual language, and then when it was made an official language, that was a time that Deaf people actually felt they could express a pride in being there and being sign language users. But we’re not quite there yet of course.

Mike Gourley: I was also struck by the fact that when Van Asch School for the Deaf was set up, the statement was made that ended, for a period of time, sign language. Why was that?

Rachel Noble: Well, at the time that they opened Sumner School for the Deaf, which was the old Van Asch school, the principle, um, was that, that, they had more knowledge of the spoken language at the time and they promoted what was called an 9ral method. So teaching Deaf people to sign … so for many years New Zealand Sign language was actually banned from education and it had no presence there at all, and it’s amazing to think how the circle has come full turn. Now we can be proud of our language again.

Mike Gourley: What was happening, if you like, to subvert that prohibition on sign language? How did Deaf people resist that?

Rachel Noble: Well Deaf people signed in any case. There was a sort of underground of Deaf people signing. Um, and while the teacher was watching of course, they’d try their best to speak, but um, in, in, there were Deaf people still  present in schools and they would still, um, still, ah, sign to the children in education. Then an American woman researcher came over. Her name was Maryanne Collins-Argarin. She identified that New Zealand Sign Language actually had the same things that any natural language has. It had a grammar, it had a vocabulary etc and this lent official status to the language.

Mike Gourley: Did that mean, in some ways, that it required a person from the hearing world to discover and champion sign language, before in fact it would be acceptable to the hearing world?

Rachel Noble: Well at that time it just happened. She just happened to come around at the right time and she had already been involved in sign language research in the States. I don’t think it was primarily important that she was a hearing person. It was important that she had this research background.

Um, another situation that had a big impact, was the World Deaf Games came here in ’89. And many Deaf people from all across the world gathered here, um, and this had a huge impact on Deaf people in New Zealand because they realised, that you know, Deaf people from abroad had all this access, had all these possibilities, and if they could, why couldn’t we?

There weren’t any interpreters here in New Zealand at the time, but there were a lot of people who trained to become communicators, if you like, people who used some basic sign language, and that had a big impact

Mike Gourley: Because I know that there has been arguments about the sustainability of sign language as a way of Deaf people being able to engage with, and if you like, integrate with, the hearing world, and that some of those other methods that have been used, such as lip reading, and dare I say it, cochlear implants, that that may be the only way, over time, to ensure that Deaf people can be part of … of the wider world.

Rachel Noble: Well the important thing to remember that is that is doesn’t matter what you do. Deaf people are still visual people. They access the world in a visual way. So a cochlear implant, or um, or lip reading, those are just tools. But New Zealand Sign Language is a visual language which has a direct way of, of being recognised by Deaf people, of being used by Deaf people, and it’s the language that binds us together.

Children with cochlear implants, there’s no reason why they can’t sign. They can still use New Zealand Sign Language and it will be there in their homes.

Mike Gourley: I’m thinking perhaps more of the response from hearing people. I think we understand that even though Māori language is now an official language of New Zealand, there’s still quite a bit of resistance, or lack of interest, or just lack of commitment, in most Pākehā learning Māori. Some do, but most don’t and in fact a lot of Māori people don’t speak or understand Māori as well. How realistic is it, that you can expect a lot of hearing people and people in hearing institutions like schools and so forth, actually taking the time out to learn sign?

Rachel Noble: I think, if you look at the language, this is third time, a third year, that we celebrate the official recognition of New Zealand Sign Language. An awareness has actually been raised quite a lot. More and more when we meet hearing people, they will ask us, actually, to learn New Zealand Sign Language, and this week there are actually 200 taster classes happening throughout the country for people who have some interest in learning sign language. And I think that’s an important shift, and the more we can make sure that works, and New Zealand Sign Language is accessible to people, that means it becomes part of everyday life. Most Pākehā people will know at least a few Māori words, and we want that to be the same with sign language. If they can use a few basic signs, that will make a big, um, impact already. And, um, to have this multicultural, multilingual situation happening in New Zealand is very special.

Mike Gourley: Oh, I mean, you had one school that got an award today, because of its commitment to having New Zealand Sign as part of the environment, and that was really for just one deaf kid, which I was impressed by, but, I just thought, how realistic is it to expect that that’s going to happen in all schools throughout Aotearoa New Zealand? Is it pie in the sky?

Rachel Noble: When we awarded, ah decided who to give the award to, actually it was a very hard choice because there were so many schools offering a fantastic service. And making that commitment to New Zealand Sign Language. So yes, I do think we can have that expectation.

Mike Gourley: And that can go across to bank tellers, um, other people who Deaf people have to meet up with, just to live everyday life, an everyday life. Do you think that’s possible?

Rachel Noble: Absolutely. And I’m expecting it to happen.

Mike Gourley: Who’s going to make it happen?

Rachel Noble: Well we will all have to work together on that. Really, the Deaf community is very strong in its intentions to make it happen. But we do have a shared responsibility. That’s why the theme is “New Zealand Sign Language is in your hands”. That shows the shared responsibility.

Mike Gourley: Obviously the government is going to have to play quite a central role here, and Markku earlier referred to the fact that maybe the government doesn’t recognise all the implications from having made New Zealand Sign an official language. What are those implications in your view and how can confident are you that government will actually do something about those implications?

Rachel Noble: There is still a lot of work to be done. It’s fantastic to have this official language, a recognition of our language, but there is still a need to have a New Zealand Sign Language strategy, with Deaf leadership in that. We need more government agencies to work together. At the moment it’s very frustrating because these barriers are encountered time and time again by Deaf people at different fronts, so it’s important to have that cooperation and also to introduce New Zealand Sign Language at a more fundamental level in education. And hopefully this will happen soon.

Mike Gourley: What talks are you having with government? I use the word talks probably ill-advisedly, but what communication are you having with government, both officials and politicians, that would get that process started, or at least underway?

Rachel Noble: We’ve already had discussions with the Minister for Disability Issues, Paula Bennett. Um, and of course with the Honorable Tariana Turia. Um, I’m having conversations with her very soon and I think she will be a strong support for our community. She of course referred to the similar journey that te Reo Māori had to New Zealand Sign Language. So I think she will be a strong campaigner for us in parliament.

This week all the offices of Deaf Aotearoa have invited their MPs, to, um, to start talking about what can happen in the future. And its important to have this heightened awareness, um, and to make sure people accept the responsibility to make it happen. We can’t leave everything to Deaf people, to the Deaf community themselves to do. We need that broader, um, communication and broader cooperation.

Mike Gourley: You show a lot of optimism, and I personally like to be an optimist myself, but there has been some cynicism in the wider disability community, about the fact there’s now a ministerial committee that has been set up and rather than action around what the support needs of disabled people are in general. Do you share that cynicism, or are you more hopeful?

Rachel Noble: I will be watching with interest [laughs].

Mike Gourley: Because I guess the risk is that we’ll simply get another talk-shop. Again using that word ill-advisedly, but another … people sitting around chatting … I mean, how will you ensure that Deaf people, as part of the leadership of disabled people, make sure that they’re at the table?

Rachel Noble: Well that’s a good point. We were hoping to set up the relationship with Minister Paula Bennett, and have regular contact. The biggest issue at the moment really is, um, the implications, the actual implementation of the New Zealand Sign Language Act. This year we definitely need to get movement on that. But we will.

Mike Gourley: Now I’ve noticed of course that you’ve re-branded the organisation to Deaf Aotearoa New Zealand. What was behind that move?

Rachel Noble: It’s a reflection of the new times. The fact that we’re looking ahead now. That we’re able to be confident and stand on our own feet, as Deaf people. And the logo also reflects that we have the different languages recognised. We have English, and we have Māori, and the now the butterfly as a symbol for what Deaf people are, what New Zealand Sign Language is, is there as well. Um, it’s now also a reflection of what the multi-cultural status of New Zealand including say Pacific Island, and the other communities that I mentioned, and shows that, that we’re right there.

Mike Gourley: How does the butterfly symbolise that?

Rachel Noble: The reason we chose that logo, is, well, most butterflies are actually deaf themselves, biologically, and the other idea is that butterflies are beautiful, it’s, it’s wonderful, and New Zealand Sign Language, and sign language in general, has that impact on people. When they see it they see it as a beautiful way of expressing yourself. And a butterfly reflects the idea of independence and freedom, and with sign language, Deaf people are free, to determine our own lives, to have access to information, to education. It allows us, well, I think Markku expressed it beautifully today. He talked about the butterfly from the heart, free to fly, and I thought that was a beautiful image.

Mike Gourley: Thank you Rachel.

Rachel Noble: Thank you.

Mike Gourley: It’s been good to be again part of the ceremony and celebrations of New Zealand Sign Language. And I’d also like to acknowledge that, for the first time, Radio New Zealand National, courtesy of our website people and our film crew here, are going to ensure that we have a Deaf-only version, visual, on our website. And I think plus we’re going to be putting up some of the segments on YouTube, so we actually make, ah, what normally is a very bad medium for Deaf people, in fact an impossible medium for Deaf people, which is radio, audio, we make that, it makes what we’re doing here today possible, you know, it’s possible for Deaf people to follow and understand. So thanks very much for that happening, for you having been part of it.

Rachel Noble: And I want to congratulate you on that initiative. It’s fantastic to make this information accessible to the Deaf community. So thank you for that.

Mike Gourley: And that’s Rachel Noble who’s the chief executive for Deaf Aotearoa New Zealand, wrapping up the programme for this week. And don’t forget to catch the visual version on our website,, and then until next time, ka kite anō.