One In Five for 15 September 2013
Katy Gosset is learning to talk with her hands - tackling this country's third official language. Here in New Zealand, sign language is spoken by about 24,000 people including deaf, hearing impaired and hearing people and Katy intends to become one of them. And yet a new report, just released by the Human Rights Commission, shows deaf people still face barriers in using New Zealand Sign Language, particularly when trying to access education and health care.
Katy Gosset: Kia ora. Good evening. I'm Katy Gosset and you're listening to One In Five. And tonight the programme is actually about those of you who aren't listening - members of the deaf and hearing impaired community for whom a transcript of this show will be available on our website. This community uses New Zealand Sign Language - the 12th most frequently used language of about 190 spoken in this country.
Owen Clouston: So I'm taking my hands and raising my little pinkie, as well as my thumb, and moving it from left to right to indicate that I'm asking...
Jane McKinnon: When you get your two fists and you put them on top of each other - the 'M', three fingers in the flat of your hand for 'mother' and the 'father' is, I think, the two fingers on the top of your hand.
Tully Murphy: You've kind of go 'nice' and you kind of wipe your chin with your right hand downwards, from your cheek down to your chin, and that's 'nice'. Then you take your two index fingers, put them together as if they're moving towards each other, facing each other, and that's 'meet'.
Katy Gosset: According to the 2006 Census there are 24,000 people in New Zealand who sign, including deaf, hearing impaired and hearing people - some of whom you've just heard. And I'm pleased to say I'm becoming one of them, albeit rather slowly and awkwardly. But more on that in a moment. The Human Rights Commission has just launched a report called 'A New Era In The Right To Sign'. It follows a year-long inquiry into the barriers deaf people face when they use sign language, and in particular, their ability to access education and health care. And it makes a number of recommendations about how they can achieve parity with the hearing community. So later in the show we're at parliament for the launch.
Paul Gibson: We have made a statement through the deaf community that things need to change.
Tariana Turia: It's very clear to me that the Human Rights Commission will continue to monitor the government and to report on progress. So I don't imagine that this is one report that you can pop in the drawer and forget about.
Katy Gosset: But first, a sign language enquiry of my own. I've been taking a course with Deaf Aotearoa. And whilst normally, at this point in a programme, I would fade up some sound effects to start building a sense of atmosphere, this course has been a full immersion experience. In other words, no sound. Someone said to me the other day, 'How do you plan to make a radio programme about a non-verbal language?' Well, I'll do it with the help of my fellow course participants - the 11 strangers who join me in quiet room.
Tully Murphy: So we're just sitting around in a kind of semi-circle with 12 people.
Jane McKinnon: Yeah, it feels good. We're standing up quite a bit, which is quite good. Everyone is doing it at the same time and it's quite easy to watch other people and see what they're doing and say, 'Oh, that's that sign for that. I didn't know that one'.
Owen Clouston: We're in a half-circle, and the aim is that the half circle is all facing Lara, who is teaching us sign.
Jane McKinnon: Lara is really helpful, so that's really good. She tends to go round and look and see what everyone's doing and give you a bit of a hand if you're stuck with something, which happens quite a bit.
Katy Gosset: Lara Draper is our tutor. She is deaf and greets us using a lateral wave to say hello. She takes the class role, finger-spelling our names using the sign language alphabet. And then she makes a gesture at the base of her throat that resembles turning a key in a lock to indicate we must turn our voices off.
Lyndamary Hamlin: So we're in the class and there generally is no talking, or there's not supposed to be, so I would say it would be like a total immersion course, like te reo is taught sometimes. Everyone has to sign. But people have... I suppose there is that whole embarrassment of people being close to someone and having to sign to someone and getting out of your comfort zone. Personally, that didn't particularly worry me because I have a small amount of experience.
Owen Clouston: Lara asked for no speaking to help enhance the learning, with the idea that sound is not required, as she believes it distracts from the actual learning.
Jane McKinnon: It was quite strange, actually. I found it quite strange that we didn't talk. And I found the thing with using the body language and the facial expressions and things like that, I found that quite hard to do. But I think you get used to it.
Tully Murphy: It's mostly quiet, it's mostly silent, apart from just the sound of hand movements or people breathing, really.
Katy Gosset: So what does that feel like? What does it feel like in this room with no sound, really?
Tully Murphy: You'd think it would feel awkward, but it doesn't really. It doesn't give that kind of vibe because everyone is quiet and that's kind of the atmosphere that people understand, that it's supposed to be a quiet environment. So it doesn't actually feel awkward at all. At least to me it doesn't.
Katy Gosset: And so the class begins. At this point, ever hopeful, I'm still clutching my microphone. The first thing that happens to me is Lara comes up, points at my mic and shakes an open hand from side to side - in other words 'no'. And she writes on the board 'No sound. All is visual'. And she's right. Apart from our laughter - either self-deprecating or the result of her anecdotes and very animated delivery - the class is silent. And it doesn't seem to be a problem.
Lyndamary Hamlin: It feels really comfortable. It's interesting watching people signing, probably because I'm used to working with somebody that signs, so it feels quite normal. It doesn't seem abnormal to me.
Owen Clouston: It feels good for me because I'm a very kinaesthetic learner. It's very hands-on. There's no notes, there's no having to try and remember things. It's all really practical.
Katy Gosset: Does it feel in any way nerve-wracking having to speak before the class, or are there moments where you feel 'Oh, I don't understand what's being said here'?
Owen Clouston: No. For me it was quite easy to follow. And I don't know whether that was because of Lara or my own ability, but I found it very easy to follow and I find her to be a really good teacher.
Katy Gosset: And, as the weeks roll by, we learn more about how to express ourselves without words.
Owen Clouston: With my hands I'm going through the different 'W-H' words that require a facial expression to go along with them. And with the 'W-H' words you are required to frown as if you have quite a puzzled look on your face. So I'm taking my hands and raising my little pinkie, as well as my thumb, and moving it from left to right to indicate that I'm asking. As well as frowning and rolling my shoulders forward, I would be asking somebody the word 'which'. Then I'll take my hands and put them together like I'm praying, then opening them up to indicate which file.
Katy Gosset: Owen Clouston is learning sign to support clients at Hohepa, a charitable trust that provides services for intellectual disabilities.
Owen Clouston: We have a memorandum of understanding with Deaf Aotearoa to look at providing residential accommodation for two people who are deaf. And as part of that, I've come along to learn and become more fluent in sign language so that when the opportunity arises I will be able to support them more fully.
Jane McKinnon: So I might do the sign for 'grandparents' - it's when you get your two fists and you put them on top of each other. I don't know how you'd describe that, sort of like you were building something. And then the parents is the 'M' - three fingers in the flat of your hand for 'mother' and then the father is two fingers...
Katy Gosset: For Jane McKinnon, the course will also help in her work as a speech language therapist.
Jane McKinnon: I work with some children who have hearing impairment, who communicate with sign. But I also work with some children who are non-verbal and they communicate with sign, as well. So it's quite interesting because maybe they can talk, but they're not necessarily motivated to communicate using speech. There's one girl I work with who has a muscular problem and she can't move her mouth to make the sounds. So she communicates using sign, as well. So that's what brought me here. I wanted to learn more about the signs because the children sign to me and up till now I haven't been able to sign back. So it was quite good because a wee boy that I work with, he loves the sign for 'broken'. So he was telling me something was broken and I was able to tell him it was fixed. So that was good.
Katy Gosset: So tell me the sign for 'fixed'.
Jane McKinnon: That's actually a cool sign where you have the flat of your hand and you make a thing that's almost like you're turning a screwdriver up against your hand with your other finger's knuckle up against it. I quite like that one 'cause it's sort of logical that the sign makes an action which you can understand. I find those kinds of signs a lot easier to understand than the ones which are maybe more abstract.
Katy Gosset: So we're seeking all the time to draw sign language back to what we know.
Jane McKinnon: Yeah, we probably are. Mm.
Tully Murphy: Kind of the first one we learnt was 'nice to meet you', so you kind of go 'nice' and you wipe your chin with your right hand downwards, from your cheek down to your chin, and that's 'nice'. Then you take your two index fingers, put them together as if they're moving towards each other, facing each other, and that's 'meet'. And then it's kind of 'nice to meet you'.
Katy Gosset: 18 year old Tully Murphy is still at school, but looks at sign language as a possible career path.
Tully Murphy: I'm still young so my brain is still learning quite well, at least for now. So I thought it would be a good time to learn a language while I'm younger and while I have the opportunities while I'm still at school. And at the school I go to I haven't heard anyone talk about sign language. People learn Japanese and French and all these other languages at my school, but nobody has ever really talked about sign language. So I thought maybe I'd learn that because it's something different.
Katy Gosset: Are you thinking career or just interest?
Tully Murphy: For now, just interest. And I'll see how I go with learning it. But if I am good at learning it and it becomes natural to me and I get good at it then I might take another course and keep going with that and it might turn into a career.
Katy Gosset: Among the new signs we're learning are our own sign names - quick gestures that identify us, rather than continuously finger-spelling our names. These can be the job we do or a physical characteristic, and Lara suggests that my sign name could be the sign for 'journalist' whereby I move my fist, containing an imaginary microphone, back and forth. Another participant, Lyndamary Hamlin, comes to the course already knowing some sign language. And she has her own sign name.
Lyndamary Hamlin: The man that I support in my job, when you first meet him he'll feel you, 'cause he's not only deaf, but he's blind, as well. So the way you sign with him is different from the way I'm learning to sign tonight. You have to actually sign on to the palm of his hand. So my sign would be an 'L' and an 'M', so an 'L' is just your first finger on your palm and then three fingers for an 'M', so it's an 'L' and an 'M' and that's my sign.
Katy Gosset: As with any language, sign has its own structure, and its grammar involves sentences that English people might consider inverted. In English we say 'What's your name?'. In sign it's 'Your name what?'
Tully Murphy: I'm putting my hand in a fist, and then I take my fist up and push it towards the person that I'm addressing. And then you take your thumb and index finger and middle finger and you put it against your temple, and then you kind of salute, and that's 'name'. And then you take your index finger and you wiggle it at the person and that's 'what'. So that's how you ask somebody's name.
Lyndamary Hamlin: One of the interesting things I've found is the whole grammar thing. But once the tutor explained it to us it made a lot more sense. I have, for the last three years, worked with a man who is deaf, and trying to interpret messages and text messages from him that have no grammar, obviously it's his grammar if it's sign, but not grammar for someone who isn't proficient at reading sign language, so to speak. It was really difficult trying to work out what somebody is trying to say. But the way she has taught it seemed quite easy.
Jane McKinnon: The grammar in sign language is the other way round. The sentence structure is inverted. And so some of the children that I work with, when they're doing their writing, they write like in sign language. So they say something like 'Coffee you want?', instead of saying 'Do you want coffee?'. And it's interesting to see. So now I've sort of thought, 'I really have to push them to learn the appropriate grammar' because I don't want them to be limited by not being able to hear or by not being able to speak. And I think they can. They have huge potential.
Katy Gosset: I think over the course of the weeks we're also realising our own potential, aided by what's been a very fun and supportive learning environment. Upon embarking on a course like this it would probably be tempting for a journalist to dabble in cliches, saying something like 'We've descended into a world without sound'. But the truth is that that sort of term implies something in the experience is lacking, and that is simply not how it feels.
Tully Murphy: It's just natural. I'm just sitting there not very stressed, because it's not that sort of environment. Not too nervous. It's just natural and you're just focused and making sure you watch people signing and get every little detail. It's natural, really.
Jane McKinnon: You get used to it. Now I come in and it takes me five minutes to get into that, whereas the first class it took me probably half the time to be able to feel like I could actually use my facial expressions and my body language and things like that.
Katy Gosset: So it feels odd?
Jane McKinnon: It feels really odd. In some ways it feels natural to do it, but it also feels unnatural, as well, because it's sort of exaggerated. It can be quite strange. Suddenly you have to do something and you're not sure if you're actually going to be able to do it, whereas in communication with speaking, you can always speak. It's kind of like being in a strange country where you have to go and ask somebody something and you don't know if they're going to understand or not. And then they might say something to you and you don't understand that. In some ways it's quite a good learning experience.
Owen Clouston: It's quite a positive atmosphere in the room. Everyone is obviously very eager to learn sign and there's a very positive vibe amongst the participants, which is really nice. And focusing on Lara, she's very vivacious, very energetic and she makes it as easy to learn sign as possible.
Katy Gosset: And speaking of Lara, it's a few weeks before I'm able to formally interview her using a sign language interpreter. And when the time comes it actually feels a bit odd to use an intermediary, as I feel I've already communicated with her in a non-verbal way. Lara says the immersion technique forces people to think immediately about how they'll get their message across. Her words are spoken by Liz Kay.
Lara Draper: It can be quite overwhelming at the start for each person, not being able to use their voice. And I think they probably expect that there might be a hearing person coming to explain. I guess it's putting everyone out of their comfort zone in a different situation. And I think we do that because the impact on them is already there. How are they going to communicate? It makes them think differently and think about how deaf people cope with their everyday lives. So having those barriers to communication every step of the way. But these people that come to the class only have it for two hours. The other reason that we do that full immersion is because sign language as a language does not have spoken language as a part of it. And it makes it much easier to learn if you just switch into that zone and sign. It's the best way. It's hard at the start, but it becomes more comfortable after some time.
Katy Gosset: What I find myself is that sometimes I can get a little... not exactly panicky, but I think 'What did she say? I missed that sign. What was that one? Did we learn that one already?' and I get a bit worried. But then I find if I just relax and not worry too much about it, I find that you're very expressive and I get the gist of it, anyway.
Lara Draper: Yeah, that's right. Not everyone understands everything that I say. But that's really the whole point, as well, and how deaf people cope every day with hearing people, not understanding, only maybe understanding a wee bit. And deaf people probably have a very thick skin, I believe, because they have to just cope in these situations. They have to find a way to communicate for the class to really watch and try and understand that I am nervous and I don't sign the same speed as I would normally. I go slowly and I do repeat a lot to make sure that everyone feels comfortable. And you're right. It is very expressive. And deaf people themselves are very visual. They really can pick up a lot of meaning from that visual aspect of the language.
Katy Gosset: I do wonder if you are very perceptive, perhaps, and very good at picking up people's body language and where they're at because of that?
Lara Draper: Well, I like to believe that, that deaf people are more in tune to that and can better see that, because they do watch people a lot. And I think they have a better understanding of body language, facial expression and the mood that might be. With hearing people hearing the tone of voice, they can judge how someone is feeling. But deaf people judge it by how the person is looking.
Katy Gosset: But Lara says the deaf community still faces challenges in dealing with the wider public.
Lara Draper: There's a range of different strategies that deaf people use to communicate. Some deaf people can use their voice, so they would try that. Otherwise they might write down or they would point to things that they want using gesture. And how hearing people respond, well, I think there's a range, really, of different responses. Some people are really accepting and they try to communicate. They have a great attitude. I think the most important thing is attitude. Having a good attitude. It doesn't matter if you can't sign, if you've got an attitude to keep trying and keep going and keep helping and keep communicating, then those are the people that you can communicate with. There's some people that just have a blank face and they'll just freeze and walk away because they don't know how to communicate with a deaf person, or some people use rude gestures and things, as well, because they're just not aware. They're not aware that the person is deaf and they're using sign language. So it depends on the situation, really.
Katy Gosset: And it's some of these barriers that a new report by the Human Rights Commission is trying to address.
(Man sings) Tutira mai nga iwi
Tatou tatou e
Tutira mai nga iwi
Tatou tatou e.
Katy Gosset: Whilst at one end of the country my classmates and I have been silently discovering a new way of communicating, at Parliament - that place of often noisy debate and dissent - a new era in sign language is being launched with plenty of accompanying sound.
(Man continues singing)
Katy Gosset: New Zealand Sign Language became an official language of this country in 2006, but the Disability Rights Commissioner, Paul Gibson, says this new report follows a wave of dissatisfaction from the deaf community.
Paul Gibson: We've had a lot of complaints over the years, and the main areas coming in were education, including early childhood, the right to services through interpreters, and also promotion and maintenance of New Zealand Sign Language. So those were the areas we focused our recommendations.
Katy Gosset: One of the report's authors is Victoria Manning, a policy analyst with the commission. She is herself deaf and project-managed the inquiry, as well as dealing with stakeholders.
Victoria Manning: It was quite clear what their priorities were. And also we looked at the United Nations Convention on the rights of disabled people that had some quite clear priorities around sign language for deaf people, too. So looking at those together, it was quite clear that those priorities were education, access to information services and language promotion and maintenance. In each of those three areas there are important things that need to happen to improve equality and access to sign language for deaf people and also people with communication difficulties. But I think if we have to pull out one, there was a very clear, big gap in early childhood. Families don't have any support or very little support to learn sign language. And that is significant because about 95% of deaf children are born to hearing families who have no prior knowledge of sign language. So it's very important that the families are supported to learn this new language as a tool for communication with their deaf children or children with communication difficulties.
Katy Gosset: And Paul Gibson says within those recommendations there are practical goals.
Paul Gibson: Developing what we call 'language nests' so that families and young children learn alongside fluent deaf people, fluent New Zealand Sign Language users. There needs to be more resources going to mainstream education, better data collection, interpreters in education. In terms of access to information and services through interpreters, we need to have better data collection around that. We need to make booking processes easier so that the burden doesn't fall on the deaf person so much. And we need to make sure that there is workforce development around interpreters. There needs to be enough to match the needs in the community. And ultimately we need a permanent body to promote and sustain the language, we think a statutory board. And we're very pleased that the government has already put in place, as we've recommended, a temporary experts group with the idea of working towards a statutory board.
Katy Gosset: The president of Deaf Aotearoa, Robert Hewison, has welcomed the report, but cautions that the findings are not new.
Robert Hewison: I think it's fantastic, but it is old news. A lot of the comments have been repeated, a lot of the same issues have been repeated over the years, issues that we haven't really seen a lot of progress on. So this report is finally something that has got that written down.
Katy Gosset: But Mr Hewison says he's not confident that the recommendations will be implemented.
Robert Hewison: It's often about the resources. If there's not enough funding, if you don't have the right people, then it can be a challenge.
Katy Gosset: And he says when it comes to prioritising the recommendations, his pick would be promoting education.
Robert Hewison: It was a recommendation around ensuring access to New Zealand Sign Language interpreters. That would be my area.
Katy Gosset: Paul Gibson says the disability sector will be watching how the government follows up on the new report.
Paul Gibson: The Human Rights Commission, along with the office of the ombudsman and the convention coal monitors governments' performance against the UN Convention. And monitoring the implementation of this report will be a key part of that. We're working positively with government to try and make it happen, to implement the recommendations. But we'll also be actively monitoring and reporting annually on how things are going.
Katy Gosset: And both he and Victoria Manning believe the report has made a statement.
Victoria Manning: Yeah. I think I'm pleased with the outcomes of the report. One of the speakers today said 'It's saying what the deaf community have been saying for a long time'. And that's true. It's not presenting anything new for deaf people. But it's brought it all together in a human rights framework, and I think that's really the first time it's happened in New Zealand. And just made that statement more strong, that access to sign language for deaf children and children with communication difficulties is a human right. And that's what this report is trying to push more.
Paul Gibson: And I'd say that it's only possible because we have the expertise through Victoria and the Human Rights Commission. As a deaf person and fluent sign language user, we can do this and do it with credibility. Across government, I don't know that there's any policy people with any expertise in the area. They need to be listening to us and we have made a statement through the deaf community, through Victoria, that things need to change.
Katy Gosset: The Minister for Disability Issues, Tariana Turia, says some government departments have already taken action on the problems highlighted. And she says the recommendations outlined by the commission won't be overlooked.
Tariana Turia: I think that by having a statutory group monitoring what's going on, it's very clear to me that the Human Rights Commission have been responsible for this report, will continue to monitor the government and to report on progress. So I don't imagine that this is one report you can pop in the drawer and forget about, because this is one of the languages of our country. We're saying that it has the same validity as English and te reo Maori and needs to be practised in everybody's daily lives. So what I'm hoping will come from it is that there won't only be a focus on people who are deaf, but the hearing community will see the importance of having these language skills, as well.
Katy Gosset: And this is a key point, that New Zealand Sign Language is both a valuable and enjoyable skill to learn. Undoubtedly, some people learn a language to travel, but whilst asking directions in a foreign country is satisfying, so, too, may be communicating with a large group of people living here where sign is our third official language. My Deaf Aotearoa course is an introductory one just six weeks long, but the organisation also runs a series of taster courses during sign language week each May, and in the meantime, some of my fellow course participants are already looking for a way to carry on.
Linda Mary Hamlin: To be able to perhaps interpret a bit better with the person I support. So getting perhaps more tenses right is perhaps what I would like to do and learn more full sentences, instead of just names of things.
Katy Gosset: Do you think you would take sign language further?
Jane McKinnon: I'd like to, yeah. The thing is you notice when you see people who are competent signers, they go so fast, that I'd like to be able to do that up to a point, as well. Because as soon as somebody says something and you don't know the sign for it, then your conversation sort of breaks down.
Tully Murphy: People should do more of it. More people should be involved in learning sign language because it doesn't seem like it's something that everyone thinks about, but it's quite important.
Katy Gosset: As for me, will I keep on learning sign language? Yes, I will. I'm committing myself to it on national airwaves over the radio, and you can hold me to it by getting in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org to enquire after my progress. In the meantime, check out our webpage - www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/oneinfive - for some photos of the class.
Well, that's the programme for tonight. Have a great evening, and One In Five will be back again at the same time next week.
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