Way back in the 1970s I worked at a school for the deaf. The children used signs to communicate with each other, but the staff were not allowed to sign to them. This was because they were supposed only to lip read. In fact we did a kind of pidgin signing because making ourselves understood without signs was too difficult. We were very relieved when, after much controversy, signed English was introduced. (Signed English is sign language with the syntax and grammar of English). Using the native sign language of the New Zealand deaf community was apparently considered too radical.
At the time I was oblivious of the implications of all this. A few years later, I read When The Mind Hears: A History of The Deaf by Harlan Lane and was shocked to discover the difference between those educated through sign and those educated under the oral school founded by Alexander Graham Bell. Instead of adults struggling to express themselves in simple written English, I read excerpts of erudite and literary writings by students of the French monks who had taught them using sign language. The Other Side of Silence by Arden Neisser opened my eyes to the struggle the American deaf community had in order to have its native sign language recognised as a true language by the hearing world.
Since then deaf communities around the world have fought for and attained, recognition of their unique deaf cultures and languages. Today New Zealand Sign Language is recognised as an official language of New Zealand. You (normally) can learn it at your local community college and if you get fluent enough you might even feature on TV and develop your own fan base. Go Jeremy.
May 2-8 is New Zealand Sign Language Week – it’s a chance to try sign language taster classes and get to know more about sign language.
- New Zealand organisations which support the deaf community – from our Internet Gateway
- Books and videos on New Zealand Sign Language at your library