Bridging worlds and embracing New Zealand Sign Language

Recent school leaver Annabel MacKay reflects on her experience accessing education bilingually as a deaf student in a mainstream school in Te Whanganui-A-Tara Wellington.

Supporting deaf students across all education settings and embracing New Zealand Sign Language is at the forefront of NZSL Week.

Interview with Annabel MacKay

Can you describe your personal education journey and any challenges you faced? 

Annabel describes her life as living between two languages and two worlds – English and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), and hearing and deaf.  

“For the most part, my education was accessed bilingually via a qualified interpreter, and I was incredibly fortunate to have this degree of access,” says Annabel. 

“I love learning and had a real thirst for knowledge. But in all honesty, isolation was a great challenge, and it can be really tough being the only (and often the first) deaf student in a school of 1,000.

“If you’ve never met a deaf person before, the prospect of meeting one can be daunting.”

Annabel found she was often the one to initiate conversations and educate teachers before they were able to educate her. 

She stresses the importance of everyone being willing to learn and improve, stating that “people truly don’t know what they don’t know”. 

Noting that there is no easy fix, Annabel believes education can be one of the most powerful tools to reduce isolation and remove systemic barriers. 

What strategies or resources were helpful across your educational journey?

Annabel says there is not one specific strategy but instead “a combination of things that collectively make a considerable difference”.

Annabel MacKay
Annabel MacKay

In addition to a qualified interpreter, Annabel transcribed some classes via a speech-to-text service and took many photos of classroom whiteboards on her phone, particularly in high school.

“It is virtually impossible to take notes in class when you are watching the interpreter or teacher, so I typed up notes following classes at home, based on what had been transcribed and any documents I received.

“I have no doubt that this greatly aided in my comprehension of the material taught.”

Annabel also built a strong support network within her school, extended community and whānau, which she could lean into when issues did arise. 

Meeting one-on-one with teachers at the beginning of the academic year also helped make sure the classroom would be as inclusive as possible, and there was continuous reflection throughout the terms.

Underlying all of these strategies, Annabel says “being aware of my human rights significantly contributed to my academic success”.

“School provided me with years of lived experience within the human rights field and self- advocacy was a key skill I learned from a young age. 

“Deaf children need to be acutely aware of their inherent value, and they need to know that it is their right and entitlement to be in the classroom just as much as anyone else.”

She sees these strategies as akin to building a bridge. 

“To build a bridge between two places, or in my case two worlds, you set foundational pillars,” says Annabel. 

“Some of these pillars came from interpretation, some from transcription notes, some from my support network, and some from my knowledge of human rights. All together they built a bridge that provided me with the access I needed to succeed educationally.”

How does NZSL contribute to the cultural richness of Aotearoa New Zealand?  

“I am incredibly proud to be multilingual,” says Annabel. 

“My family are all hearing and I learned NZSL through meeting the Deaf community and being exposed to fluent language models. Knowing NZSL has allowed me to immerse myself into a distinct culture, community, and way of life where I am able to see things with a different worldview.”

Grateful for the wonderful people met on her journey to date, Annabel says NZSL has fuelled her desire to make tangible change in the world.

With about 300 different sign languages worldwide, she equates NZSL as a “cornerstone of New Zealand culture” and “one of our official languages”. 

“Sign languages are not universal. Just like spoken languages, different sign languages exhibit distinct characteristics with their own dialects and variations,” explains Annabel. 

“NZSL is a unique taonga to Aotearoa that contributes to the vitality, cohesion, and multicultural fabric of our country.”

How do you envision the future?

Annabel says she hopes deaf children will soon have the opportunity to access their education bilingually and bimodally in English and NZSL.

“All students, including deaf students, have the right to an equitable and fully accessible education in a safe environment where they are able to flourish and thrive,” says Annabel. 

“It is important to recognise that language learning begins at birth and deaf children should have the opportunity to learn English and NZSL – as well as te reo Māori and their home languages – from the early years.”

Annabel also notes that “authentic, meaningful representation truly matters”. 

“I’d love to see more deaf teachers, deaf principals, and deaf leaders in both schools and in society,” says Annabel. 

“Deaf children can be absolutely anything that they want to be – surgeons, engineers, lawyers, film stars, programmers – but you can’t be what you can’t see. Deaf children need to see role models to motivate them to reach for the stars and chase their dreams.”  

What advice would you give educators who may be unfamiliar with the Deaf community and NZSL? 

“A language, in whatever form, is intertwined with the people who use it, regardless of whether those people have inherited or acquired it,” says Annabel. 

“To understand each other, we need to understand our languages. Language is the window to a child’s world.

“Deaf children, like all children, need a rich language environment across all areas of their education to succeed in life. Ensuring comprehensive language exposure and engagement throughout the school community is crucial to avoid the profound and lifelong consequences of language deprivation.” 

Annabel’s biggest tip to educators is to adopt Universal Design of Learning (UDL) approach.

She says this includes – but is not limited to – adding captions to videos in class, providing glossaries and allowing all students to take a listening break, an ‘eye’ break and a brain break in class.

 “Concentration fatigue is real for everyone!”

Annabel points out that the best way to find out what a deaf student needs, is to ask them. 

“Ask what the best way to communicate with them is, ask how you can make your classroom more inclusive to them,”
she says. 

“No-one knows what’s best for the deaf student more than the deaf student themselves. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and what works for one child may not work for another.”

She says the Deaf community, like all communities, is diverse and intersectional. 

“Some people speak, some people sign and some people – myself included – do both. Another piece of advice is to make sure all aspects of school life are fully accessible. Deaf children are children first and want to get involved in group discussions, do sports, go to camp, and just be.”

What role can teachers play in celebrating NZSL, and fostering a sense of pride within the Deaf community? 

Teachers and the school community can celebrate NZSL by integrating it into their daily routines.  

“It’s only when ākonga are exposed to NZSL at a consistent and natural rate that it begins to become normalised, embraced, and included,” says Annabel. 

“My primary school principal stood at the gate every day, signing ‘good morning’ to each student who passed by.”

Other suggestions include using NZSL to match educators’ instructions and activities, such as “eyes on me”, “sit down”, “good work” or through fingerspelling the roll call.

“Fingerspelling can be a great tool during literacy lessons for all younger students.” 

She points to online resources like Learn NZSL or the NZSL Dictionary that are freely available. 

Annabel also recommends teachers educate themselves about NZSL and on the best teaching practices for deaf children, and she encourages reaching out to members of the Deaf community who have lived experience.

“I read recently that language is similar to things in the natural world. If we don’t protect and nourish it, it risks dying out.

“Historically, NZSL was banned in educational settings; and while educators cannot repair the past, they have the power to signpost the future.”

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