Deaf Aotearoa Position Statement on New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL)

4 December 2022

General position

Deaf Aotearoa affirms its position that acquisition of language from birth is a human right for every person, and that deaf infants and children should be given the opportunity to acquire and develop proficiency in NZSL as early as possible.

This position is in line with the views of the World Federation of the Deaf[1] and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities[2].

NZSL as an official and distinct language

NZSL is recognised as an official language by the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006, and is the sign language of the Deaf community in New Zealand. As is the case with signed languages worldwide, NZSL conforms to linguistic principles, e.g., semantics, syntax, morphology, phonology and pragmatics. The visual-spatial structure of NZSL is distinct from English, which is a linear, sequential language based on auditory processes.

NZSL acquisition and the rights of deaf children

Native fluency in NZSL is more easily achieved through exposure and interaction early in life. However, learning of NZSL as an additional language can begin at any time and continue for as long as the learner wants.

The earliest years of a child’s life are the most critical for language acquisition; a time when the foundation is formed for cognitive and literacy development. Babies are born with the innate ability to acquire languages accessible to them and used by their families and care providers. Language competency is essential for cognitive, social, emotional, and psychological development.

Deaf Aotearoa affirms that NZSL should be made available to every deaf infant, in addition to any assistive technologies that may be used to take advantage of the deaf infant’s access to the language(s) used by their families and care providers.

Deaf Aotearoa supports maximising language proficiency in deaf infants through the implementation of a bilingual approach, i.e., incorporating early acquisition and learning of NZSL and English.

Furthermore, Deaf Aotearoa is strongly committed to ensuring that parents of newly identified deaf infants and children receive accurate information about the benefits of acquiring and developing proficiency in both languages.

Deaf Aotearoa believes that early language acquisition in both languages contributes to healthy development of identity and self-esteem in deaf children, including fluid movement between the Deaf and hearing communities.

NZSL as a cultural and linguistic construct and determinant of identity

Deaf Aotearoa recognises that Deaf people consider themselves a minority linguistic and cultural group, with no disability as long as linguistic access is provided.

Recognising and valuing the linguistic and cultural identity of the Deaf community recognises their citizenship. Deaf identity can also include other identities relating to a person’s gender, ethnicity, religious belief etc.

Deaf identity and linguistic rights are important for Deaf people and these concepts should not be considered within a disability paradigm based on a medical model of disability. The medical model views deafness as a deficit and is focused on eliminating it.

The current ‘social model’ of disability theory can align with cultural and linguistic thinking. This model views Deaf people as having communication needs and disability only occurs if the communication need is not met.

Because Deaf people’s communication needs are often not met across most aspects of society, they are usually required to engage through a disability perspective. The removal of communication barriers is usually designated to policy makers who operate within disability frameworks, because there are no tools or expertise to deal with the needs of linguistic or cultural minorities.

Disability service providers also often have no tools or expertise to meet the Deaf community’s communication needs in culturally competent ways.

Required action

Deaf Aotearoa asserts that matters relating to New Zealand Sign Language be situated within a linguistic and cultural context, and not a disability one. Administration of the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006 is currently the responsibility of the Ministry of Social Development, and is likely to transfer to Whaikaha – Ministry of Disabled People in the future.

Deaf Aotearoa encourages decision-makers to urgently address this lack of cultural understanding so New Zealanders are made aware of, and can learn about, Deaf culture and the Deaf worldview in the same manner as tikanga Māori and Te Ao Māori.

We propose that responsibility for the Act is reassigned to a Ministerial portfolio that is better able to respect and respond to cultural and linguistic priorities, such as the Arts, Culture and Heritage, or Diversity, Inclusion and Ethnic Communities portfolios.

Similarly, the New Zealand Sign Language Board and its Secretariat could be relocated to the government department to match the changed Ministerial portfolio.



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