Covid-19: Deaf Aotearoa condemns mockery of NZ Sign Language interpreters

The Prime Minister has personally thanked the New Zealand Sign Language interpreters that will be a familiar face to many Kiwis who follow the government’s daily covid-19 briefings.

National Civil Defence Director Sarah Stuart-Black, with sign language interpreter Alan Wendt from iSign. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

Six highly-skilled and experienced NZSL interpreters are working on the government Covid-19 response. They work seven-hour shifts and were rostered across a seven-day week.

“About 4000 to 5000 New Zealanders are deaf and rely on New Zealand Sign Language as their first language. It is one of New Zealand’s three official languages,” Jacinda Ardern said at today’s briefing on the government’s Covid-19 response.

“Their singular focus is to make sure as many New Zealanders as possible know what is going on… It is an exceptional feat and at a vital time when we need information to reach as many New Zealanders as possible.”

Ardern said she knew some of the interpreters had gone viral. “I hope what will also go viral is our gratitude for the incredible role and important work that they do.”

Her message comes a day after Deaf Aotearoa condemned memes and parody videos imitating New Zealand Sign Language interpreters that were being shared online.

The interpreters, who provide access to importing covid-19 related information to deaf people, are present at most media briefings and government updates.

Deaf Aotearoa president Oliver Ferguson said imagery being shared on social media was putting the highly skilled workers under additional pressure.

“The daily presence of New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) on our screens during times of crisis is a novelty to many … and so interpreters become a focus of attention,” Mr Ferguson said.

“While the New Zealand public largely understands and welcomes the fact that everyone has a right to access crucial information, including deaf people through one of our three official languages, some recent comments made on social media have been particularly disrespectful, such as calling the interpreters ‘distracting’ or ‘unnecessary’ and making fun of them.

“In times of crisis, NZSL interpreters have an important job to ensure the deaf community have access to the same information that other New Zealanders do” he said. “And, for many deaf people who use NZSL as their first or preferred language, NZSL is the only way to access information.”

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP – don’t show up at a medical centre

The organisation asked that the public show respect to deaf people and their language.

“Sign language interpreters are working in a very fast-paced, challenging environment and this requires a high degree of skill,” Sign Language Interpreters Association president Micky Vale said.

“In providing access to deaf people in this way, interpreters are having to place themselves in the limelight, which can be stressful in itself.

“NZSL interpreters do not need the added stress of being made the butt of jokes or negative comments.”

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