Deaf Aotearoa Position Statement on NZSL Cultural Appropriation

20 May 2023

Introduction

Cultural appropriation is when someone from one culture takes something that is unique to a smaller community and uses it in an insensitive, offensive, abusive or inappropriate way. 

It can also mean using a practice of a cultural group without recognising its origin, meaning and true value.

In the Deaf context, it can be defined as a situation in which a person or a group of hearing people use sign language without having full knowledge of it or without fully appreciating it[1].

Cultural appropriation of sign language has been increasing in recent years with the expansion of social media. Deaf characters in both theatre and film are also popular at the moment, with roles not always going to Deaf actors or native/fluent sign language users [see Appendix 1 for more information].

General position

New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is the language of the Deaf community and is a   fundamental aspect of Deaf culture and how Deaf people define and identify themselves.

In the same way that te reo Māori is tikanga for Māori, NZSL is a cultural treasure for the Deaf community. It must be treated with respect and not appropriated by hearing people for monetary gain or other benefit. Nor must it be used in any way that diminishes, demeans, ridicules or disempowers the cultural identity and wellbeing of Deaf people.

However, sign language is a language for everyone, and anyone can learn it. Signing when you are not Deaf is not cultural appropriation. Deaf Aotearoa supports the acquisition of sign language for as many people as possible.

Deaf Aotearoa also supports the development and growth of NZSL content that is culturally competent without being exploitative.

The seriousness of cultural appropriation[2]

Cultural appropriation is detrimental to the Deaf community because it can:

  • trivialise the historical oppression of sign languages (i.e the fashionable use of sign language can ignore the effect of 100 years of oralism)
  • reinforce ‘hearing privileges’ (i.e hearing people taking elements of Deaf culture without living the barriers Deaf people face every day)
  • prioritise hearing people’s feelings over the feelings of Deaf people (i.e. justifying the use of sign language when the Deaf community are opposed to a particular usage)
  • perpetuate stereotypes of sign language (i.e trivialising its complexity as a language).

How to avoid cultural appropriation

Learn about Deaf history and culture. Showcase real, authentic representation. Use NZSL correctly.

Examples:

  • use a Deaf person to sign the signed parts, eg anthems at sports events and for interpreted plays and shows
  • consult and collaborate with Deaf people who use NZSL fluently and bring Deaf people into content creation
  • use sign language products and services provided by Deaf people
  • support Deaf-owned, Deaf-run businesses, services and products related to sign language and Deaf culture
  • invite, interview and hire deaf professionals and experts on sign language to events

How to consult with the Deaf community

New Zealand’s Deaf community is relatively small with around 4,000 people who use NZSL as their primary language for every day communication. Consulting with the Deaf community is best done face-to-face and by having information provided in NZSL.

Contact Deaf Aotearoa for advice:

Email: nzsl@deaf.org.nz

Phone: 0800 33 23 22

Appendix 1: Portrayal of Deaf people in television, film and theatre

Deaf Aotearoa understands that the portrayals of Deaf people in television, film and theatre has a significant impact on the public image of the Deaf community. Because of this, we advocate that all portrayals of Deaf people are accurate and authentic.

We affirm that Deaf culture, language and heritage must be represented with responsibility.

We recommend increased casting of Deaf actors in all roles. Deaf identity is developed and embedded by lifelong experience and no amount of research or training can prepare a hearing actor to approximate what it is like to sign or behave as a Deaf person.

In addition, we recommend the use of qualified Deaf experts to serve as consultants to ensure the appropriate usage of NZSL in script translations.

The Deaf community is underrepresented throughout the entertainment industry, especially in the fields of writing, directing and producing. We call for entertainment-related courses and programmes to provide opportunities for aspiring Deaf people to train in these fields.

To summarise, the more Deaf people are involved in television, film and theatre, the more audiences will understand and accept Deaf culture and attitudes will improve.

Resources: media guidelines

Deaf Aotearoa concurs the with National Association of the Deaf’s Guidelines for Media Portrayal of the Deaf Community: https://www.nad.org/about-us/position-statements/guidelines-for-media-portrayal-of-the-deaf-community/

We call for New Zealand’s media and entertainment industry to adopt these.


[1] https://culturalappropriation.unusualverse.com/

[2] https://culturalappropriation.unusualverse.com/

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