Deaf Aotearoa Position Statement on Education

4 December 2022

Deaf learners have distinct language and education rights. Deaf children in particular are at risk of Language Deprivation Syndrome; a set of disorders associated with not having direct access to language. Language rights are realised by ensuring opportunities to acquire and learn the language from native-level speakers and in language rich environments from birth and throughout their schooling and life.[1]

General position

Deaf Aotearoa believes that Deaf and hard-of-hearing people should have access to both New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) and English (spoken and written) from the time of identification, through early intervention programmes and throughout all levels of education.

Deaf Aotearoa supports the 2013 Human Rights Commission Inquiry into NZSL report findings that education for deaf people is a key priority area that needs progressing to ensure realisation of fundamental human rights for deaf people.[2]

Deaf Aotearoa supports the NZSL Strategy 2018-2023 prioritisation of ‘Acquisition’ and enabling deaf people to learn and use NZSL naturally within a community of users. This includes ensuring deaf children learn NZSL at age-appropriate levels and through full immersion with signing peers and adult language models.[3]  

Inclusive Education

Deaf Aotearoa supports and promotes the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) definition of “inclusive education”. This includes that “inclusive education” for deaf learners can take the form of various models and occur in a range of settings and must be:

  • of high quality
  • provide direct instruction in NZSL
  • provide access to deaf peers, deaf teachers and other education staff who are deaf and fluent in NZSL
  • provide a bilingual curriculum that includes the study of NZSL and Deaf culture.

Deaf Aotearoa does not support interpretations of “inclusive education” that exclusively preference or limit the placement of deaf learners into mainstream settings as these environments often do not provide adequate access to direct instruction in NZSL, including instruction from deaf teachers and teachers fluent in NZSL.[4]

Deaf Aotearoa reaffirms that an inclusive education system must provide access in NZSL for deaf people at all levels of the education system from early childhood education through to tertiary education and Adult Community Education.

Bilingual Education (NZSL and English)

Deaf Aotearoa:

  • recognises the vital contribution bilingual NZSL schools make to the education and development of deaf children
  • recognises the crucial role that bilingual NZSL schools play in the maintenance of NZSL including through intergenerational transmission of the language
  • advocates for the continuation and strengthening of bilingual NZSL schools as essential to enable Deaf people to realise their right to education
  • recognises and respects parent choice, and advocates for real choices in Deaf education. For example, education options should be similarly resourced and viable, and should not be mutually exclusive.

Bilingual NZSL schools bring together teachers, other education personnel and resources creating linguistic and culturally rich environment that enable Deaf pedagogies, bilingual education practices and language immersion. Deaf pedagogy refers to aspects of deaf education that deaf educators bring that hearing educators rarely can. Deaf Aotearoa believes well-resourced and strong bilingual NZSL schools are a necessary part of providing equitable access to education for deaf learners.

Bringing the two concepts together – Inclusive Bilingual Education

Deaf Aotearoa demands that education providers and decision-makers implement inclusive bilingual education for deaf learners urgently.  

We believe that inclusive bilingual schools provide:

  • quality teaching in NZSL and English
  • peers who are deaf and use NZSL learning together
  • teachers fluent in NZSL, including Deaf teachers
  • teaching of the national curriculum with the addition of teaching of NZSL and Deaf culture.

Because of their critical role in language acquisition for deaf children, inclusive bilingual schools must be maintained and promoted as part of the inclusive education system.

Quality bilingual education is open to deaf, deafblind and others to learn in NZSL, and does not discriminate on the basis of disability/hearing levels.

Bilingual education addresses the needs of the whole child within their family, community and society. It recognises the relationship between language development, cognitive development and social/emotional development. Bilingual education fosters positive self-esteem, confidence, resilience, and identity, factors necessary for lifelong learning and success.[5]

The New Zealand Government has obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Deaf Aotearoa asks the New Zealand Government to honour its obligations under the UNCRPD.

Article 24 of the UNCRPD stipulates that the Government must ensure their inclusive education system provides:

  • full development of the human potential and sense of dignity and self-worth
  • learning of sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community
  • support measures that maximise academic and social development
  • education for deaf learners delivered in the most appropriate languages and modes and means for communication and in environments that maximise academic and social development
  • measures to employ teachers who are qualified in sign language
  • training for professional staff at all levels of education, including training in disability awareness and sign language.

The UNCRPD upholds accessibility is an unconditional right and stipulates that resource limitations cannot be used as an excuse for inaction.[6]

Concluding observations on the combined second and third periodic reports of New Zealand from the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the Committee), dated 9 September 2022

With respect to Article 24 of the UNCRPD (Education), the Committee is concerned about the increased enrolment of students with disabilities in separate learning environments, such as specialist schools, residential specialist schools and special education satellite units, despite legislative and policy commitments to inclusive education.

The Committee recommends New Zealand:

“Develop an inclusive education strategy that includes measures for the devolution of segregated education settings into a mainstream inclusive education system, to transition funding and resources from specialist education to inclusive education, to prioritise inclusive education in teacher training, to establish uniform inclusive education policies and guidelines, to develop an inclusive education curriculum, and to promote and raise community awareness”.[7]

Deaf Aotearoa agrees with the Committee’s recommendation with respect to inclusive education, with the caveat that Deaf learners are not disabled. For Deaf learners, we do not support the decentralisation of residential Deaf schools as these are the settings where Deaf learners are able to connect with culture, community and language resulting in the development of a clear sense of identity. Deaf schools are equivalent to Kura Kaupapa and should be valued as such.


[1] International Disability Alliance, June 2020, “Inclusive Education Flagship Report”, Annex, page 9.

[2] Human Rights Commission, September 2013, “A New Era in the Right to Sign | He Houhanga Rongo te Tika Ki Te Reo Turi”, page 8.

[3] Ministry of Social Development, New Zealand Sign Language Board, October 2018, “New Zealand Sign Language Strategy 2018 – 2023, page 8 and page 12.

[4] World Federation of the Deaf Position Paper on Inclusive Education, 10 May 2018, page 1.

[5] National Association of the Deaf. Position Statement on ASL and English Bilingual Education. Accessed on 21 November 2018 at https://www.nad.org/about-us/position-statements/position-statement-on-asl-and-english-bilingual-education/

[6] United Nations, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Eleventh Session, General Comment No. 2 (2014) Article 9 Accessibility, page 5

[7] https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRPD%2fC%2fNZL%2fCO%2f2-3&Lang=en

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