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New Zealand Sign Language Bill

Second Reading

Thursday 23 February 2006 Hansard source (external site)

DysonHon RUTH DYSON (Minister for Disability Issues) Link to this

I move, That the New Zealand Sign Language Bill be now read a second time. The purpose of this bill is to promote and maintain the use of New Zealand Sign Language. To achieve this, the bill declares New Zealand Sign Language to be an official language of our country. It provides for the use of New Zealand Sign Language in legal proceedings, and it enables the making of regulations to set competency standards for the interpretation in legal proceedings of New Zealand Sign Language. The bill sets out principles to guide Government departments in the use they should make of New Zealand Sign Language.

New Zealand Sign Language is used by approximately 28,000 people. An estimated 7,000 of those people are deaf. It is a language with a unique linguistic structure, and it includes signs that express concepts from Māori culture. Deaf Māori describe New Zealand Sign Language as a tool for accessing their Māori language and culture. Deaf people comprise a distinct and dynamic cultural group. New Zealand Sign Language is central to their culture, with its rich body of distinct customs, mannerisms, art, humour, and history.

This bill is necessary. Consultation with the Deaf community has highlighted that a lack of recognition of New Zealand Sign Language leads to serious barriers to information and services, which can result in injustices for deaf people. The bill will improve Deaf people’s access to information and services that hearing people take for granted, and it will provide acknowledgment of Deaf people’s language and culture.

The bill had its first reading on 22 June 2004, and it was then referred to the Justice and Electoral Committee, which reported back to the House on 18 July last year. Before I outline the select committee’s findings, I would like to acknowledge and commend the committee’s efforts to make the select committee process inclusive of Deaf people. For the first time, videotape submissions of Deaf people using New Zealand Sign Language were accepted in place of written submissions, because for many Deaf people English is a second language. New Zealand Sign Language interpreters were accommodated throughout the select committee’s processes.

The Justice and Electoral Committee’s effective accommodation of Deaf people has set precedents for the use of New Zealand Sign Language in our parliamentary processes. I thank all members of the select committee and the clerks for their work. The committee received 189 written submissions on the bill. It also received six videotapes that recorded a further 104 Deaf people signing their individual submission on the bill. That means that a total of 293 people gave individual submissions. The majority of those submissions were from Deaf people, including some Deaf school students and other people with an interest in the Deaf community. No submission opposed the bill. Many submitters expressed celebration at having their language recognised after years of stigmatisation and oppression.

The select committee recommends a number of changes to the bill, all of which I support. Although the changes are mainly minor and technical in nature, they strengthen and clarify the bill. I would like to make particular comment on a few of those changes. The select committee recommends changes that the definitions of “interpretation” and “translation” be more closely aligned with the definition of those terms in the Māori Language Act 1987. Those definitions would now relate only to New Zealand Sign Language interpretations and translations into and from English and Māori. This will help to ensure that interpretations and translations may be practically implemented in courts.

Some submitters asked that the bill provide a definition of a “competent interpreter”. The select committee noted that an interdepartmental working-group is looking into this area. I can advise the House that a group that includes interpreters, Deaf people, and Government officials will be reporting back to Cabinet shortly. The group will propose minimum standards for New Zealand Sign Language interpreters in courts, and that the Ministry of Justice be responsible for the implementation of the proposed minimum standards.

The select committee heard stories in which deaf people experienced problems in gaining access to competent interpreters in wider justice settings, such as in police interviews, in corrections settings, and in gaining legal representation. The select committee considered that issue carefully. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 provides a statutory basis for a Deaf person to access New Zealand Sign Language interpretations in connection with criminal proceedings. Therefore, the select committee considers that the New Zealand Sign Language Bill does not need amending to confer a statutory right to have interpreters provided at all stages of the criminal justice process. However, the select committee considers that further work is needed to ensure that competency standards for interpreters are available for those who work in the wider justice setting. The committee recommends that this further work should be undertaken by the working-group I referred to earlier, and that it should be expanded to include the rest of the justice sector. I support this move, and have asked officials to make arrangements for this wider membership, particularly from both police and Corrections.

The select committee proposes a new clause 10B to clarify that the bill does not extend rights to the Deaf community beyond those already provided in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. It does not limit those rights in any way.

The committee noted that it is important for departments to engage directly with appropriate representatives of the Deaf community when consulting on matters relating to New Zealand Sign Language. To address this it has proposed a new subclause (1A) to clause 9, which provides that Government departments must endeavour to consult with people or organisations that the chief executive contends are representative of the interests of the Deaf community.

The bill’s wider objectives include the promotion and maintenance of New Zealand Sign Language. The select committee considered that monitoring the effectiveness of this bill against its stated purpose should be the next step in identifying further work that may be needed to achieve its wider goals. To support this it has proposed a new clause 10A to provide that the responsible Minister must require a report on the operation of the Act and whether any amendments to its scope and contents are necessary or desirable. That report would be required as soon as practicable after 1 March 2009, approximately 3 years after the bill is enacted. The new clause also states that representatives of the Deaf community must be consulted in this review.

A major theme in the submissions was the pervasive, daily barriers experienced by deaf people. Submitters described problems in accessing information and services that hearing people take for granted in education, employment, health, public information, and marae, family, and whānau events. Providing for the use of New Zealand Sign Language in education settings was seen as a particular priority area. The problems of deaf people’s access to Government services and information are addressed by the principles of the bill and related work streams. This includes work to develop long-term plans for the removal of language barriers in education, employment, health, and broadcasting.

The work on the New Zealand Sign Language Bill provides a platform for understanding the inequalities that deaf people face. In a model society we would provide equal participation for deaf people immediately. The New Zealand Sign Language Bill is a substantial first step towards achieving our vision of an inclusive society. The next steps include developing the capacity of the interpretive workforce, beginning with those in the justice system. The recommended review of the Act after approximately 3 years will also provide a means for monitoring implementation of the bill.

The passage of this bill through the House is very timely. Members of the Deaf community have been seeking recognition of their language for 20 years.

In conclusion, I reiterate that this bill is a monumental milestone for the Deaf community. It gives due honour and respect to Deaf people and to their unique language and culture. By declaring New Zealand Sign Language to be an official language of our country, this House is acknowledging the Deaf community’s presence, its rights, and its equal value in our society. I commend the progress of this bill to the House.

HutchisonDr PAUL HUTCHISON (National—Port Waikato) Link to this

The National Party supports the second reading of this historic New Zealand Sign Language Bill, and we congratulate all those who have worked so hard to achieve it and to bring it about today. Although I was not personally on the Justice and Electoral Committee, I understand that the 195 submitters—although I hear from the Minister for Disability Issues, Ruth Dyson, that the total figure was actually 293 submitters—all supported this bill.

The genesis of this landmark bill goes back a long way, but the Deaf community in particular must be congratulated on the long, hard, and consistent work it has done over more than 20 years to bring New Zealand Sign Language to being recognised as an official language in New Zealand. People have asked what is an official language. At present New Zealand has two official languages: English and Māori. Māori is official because it has been declared so by statute, and English is official by convention dating back many hundreds of years into English law.

It is important to acknowledge that New Zealand Sign Language is a wholly visual language with its own grammatical structure, which is different from that of English and Māori. It is distinct, and it differs from the sign language of other countries such as Australia, America, Canada, and Britain. I am also told that a deaf person fluent in Māori who has no English, and a deaf person fluent in English who has no Māori, may equally learn and communicate with New Zealand Sign Language.

The modern history leading up to the second reading of this bill has been more rapid than the long history of obstacles that deaf people in New Zealand have had to confront since the mid-1850s, and probably long before that, as well. As I noted in the first reading of this bill, the Deaf Association of New Zealand has provided fascinating information demonstrating how British sign language was introduced to New Zealand back in the 1880s by deaf migrants, pupils attending schools for the deaf, and tutors working here in New Zealand. But how extremely difficult it must have been if one was a deaf person or child living and working in isolation out on a farm—or perhaps on a whaling station, as my forebears were—to have access to those facilities. There was certainly no New Zealand Bill of Rights Act in those days; in fact, for the majority of New Zealanders there was simply no access to services, whatsoever.

In 1878 the very insightful South Island MP William Rolleston introduced a bill to fund an institution for the deaf. By the 1880s school leavers from Sumner and overseas formed deaf communities. School signs and the British sign language combined to form the New Zealand Sign Language, which has since evolved as a sign language absolutely unique to New Zealand. In 1904 an Act of Parliament meant that parents had to enrol their deaf children at Sumner, but signing was forbidden. However, children signed in dormitories and developed their own signs. So it was from these very early beginnings that I understand the New Zealand Sign Language has evolved and developed.

In 1983 the Deaf Association of New Zealand was persuaded by its hearing president to accept signed English as the official sign language, in the belief that anything else would prevent deaf children from having any kind of access to manual communication. From there, work carried on so that by 1992 a New Zealand Sign Language dictionary was started at Victoria University. In the latter part of that year the New Zealand Sign Language Tutors Association was started. In 1997 A Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language was published. That was a major milestone and contribution.

So today we get one step closer to the recognition of New Zealand Sign Language becoming an official language. At this stage the bill states that official status does not create any legally enforceable right except in respect of legal proceedings. My colleague Sandra Goudie spoke vividly in the first reading debate of the huge misunderstandings that had arisen when deaf drivers were apprehended by the police and communication virtually broke down, until sign language came to the rescue. Dr Richard Worth, another of my eminent National colleagues, will also emphasise the profound difference to the fair working of the courts when sign language was made an official and an enforceable right in legal proceedings.

I absolutely endorse clause 10A, which requires a review of operations of the Act as soon as practicable after 1 March 2009. This requires a report on, firstly, the operation of this Act since its commencement, and, secondly, on whether any amendments to the scope and contents of the Act are necessary or desirable. The Justice and Electoral Committee recommended the inclusion of “an explicit statement to confirm that, aside from enforcing the right to use New Zealand Sign Language in any legal proceedings, the bill does not extend rights to the Deaf community beyond those already provided in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, and does not limit their rights in any way.” Again, I understand that clause 10B covers this effectively by stating: “Nothing in this Act affects the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.”

I am concerned, however, that there was no fiscal impact report on the bill. I do see it as inevitable, and in fact as right and proper, that in time there will be further provisions for expansion of signing services into health, education, and other areas. It is important, therefore, that the fiscal implications of this bill are taken seriously. The select committee was told that at this stage further spending would have to come from Vote Justice baseline funding. It is therefore vital and fundamental that Vote Justice is adequately prepared, and that in the future if changes are made they are well-thought-out so they can be sustained effectively into the future.

This bill has had the consistent backing and support of the Deaf community. We now learn that the 293 submissions to this bill were all supportive of it. It is with great pleasure that National supports its second reading.

DalzielHon LIANNE DALZIEL (Minister of Commerce) Link to this

This is an important day for the New Zealand Deaf community, as it marks a further step towards the recognition of New Zealand Sign Language as an official language. That is important in terms of the symbolism it represents but, more so, on a practical level it provides members of the Deaf community with the confidence to assert their right to communicate in their own language. It is not a prescriptive law but rather an enabling one, and that has been the approach of this Government.

I want to pay personal tribute to the Hon Ruth Dyson in that regard. As Minister for Disability Issues she has worked closely with different communities to ensure that their needs are identified and addressed. In a debate such as this, where none of us have the ability to communicate as part of a particular community, we can do so only on behalf of those members of the community we have met. Having had the pleasure of sitting on the Justice and Electoral Committee that considered this bill, I know that the Minister’s own personal commitment is both recognised and honoured by the community. The Minister can personally feel proud of what she has achieved, and know that the gratitude of the community is both genuine and heartfelt.

As a Parliament, too, we can take pride in adopting a non-partisan approach to this legislation. It means a lot to the community that this bill is passing without dissent.

I want to pay tribute to two very special people—David and Rachel McKee, who head the Deaf Studies Research Unit of Victoria University. At the select committee not only did they provide us with a real insight into the Deaf community but they gave us some training so that we could greet submitters, welcome them to the committee, and thank them for their submission. I know that the submitters were genuinely appreciative of our efforts in that regard and, given that this was probably the first time that many of them had come to Parliament, we were pleased we were able to be welcoming to them.

I also thank the interpreters. Not only did we have the challenge of hearings in Wellington; we also had the added challenge of distance submissions requiring interpreters to be used in other centres, with questions and answers being interpreted in the select committee room at the same time.

All submissions, as we have heard, were in support of the bill. As a result of the submissions, and the excellent support of the advisers from the Office for Disability Issues and the Ministry of Social Development, we made some minor amendments that have strengthened the legislation without detracting from its original purpose, which is to promote and maintain the use of New Zealand Sign Language. The Minister has identified the changes that we made, so I will not go through those here. But I do want to acknowledge that we received many helpful submissions—or advice, really—from a range of departments: the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Corrections, the New Zealand Police, the Ministry of Education, and the Law Commission. What those indicated to me was a widespread understanding within the Government sector of the barriers faced by deaf people when accessing services and information. That leaves me very confident that the interdepartmental working-groups will be working hard to remove the language barriers they know exist, especially in the areas of health, education, employment, and public broadcasting.

I conclude by thanking everyone who made submissions. Parliament’s task is made easier when such overwhelming support for a measure is evidenced in this way. I felt privileged to sit on the select committee, and I am pleased that the House itself has made provision for this bill’s second reading to be made accessible to the Deaf community through agreed hours and interpretation services. As the Minister said, today is a cause for celebration and I, too, commend the bill to the House.

WorthDr RICHARD WORTH (National) Link to this

For the benefit of those who are not present in this debating chamber and who are not watching what is occurring on television, I say that there is at the moment a remarkable sight in this House. What we are saying in the speeches that, as politicians, we are making is being translated into sign language. For those of us watching this event, it is truly remarkable to think that oral language can be translated in such a vivid, visual way.

Dr Hutchison has said, on behalf of the National Party, that we support this bill, and we have supported it from the outset. The reporting back of this bill for its second reading is a splendid occasion and an exciting one. Of course, that is not the end of its journey. There are further parliamentary steps that must be taken, but the second reading is certainly one of the great steps. Lying ahead in the parliamentary process are, first, the Committee stage of this bill, which we in National are confident will have a very satisfactory outcome, and then, finally, the last stage, the third reading, following which the Governor-General will sign this bill and it will become part of the laws of New Zealand.

We do well, I think, to remind ourselves of the exact extent of hearing impairment in the community. According to a New Zealand disability survey that was carried out by Statistics New Zealand, approximately 223,500 adults were either deaf, or had a hearing limitation that could not be eliminated by a hearing aid, in 2001. Ninety-five percent of adults who were deaf, or who had a hearing limitation, were living in dwelling houses. The remaining 5 percent were living in residential facilities. Sadly, an estimated 18,300 children were deaf, or had a hearing limitation that was not then being corrected. Nine percent of those children used some type of equipment for hearing, such as a hearing aid or an FM system. To complete the statistical picture, two-thirds of the partially, or completely, deaf adults in households used some type of special equipment or service related to their disability. The most common types reported were a hearing aid and a volume-control telephone.

Some 7,700 partially, or completely, deaf adults living in households used New Zealand Sign Language and/or Signed English. Others in other places have made comments about the make-up of that very distinct and dynamic cultural group, which represents the Deaf community. Of course, New Zealand Sign Language is central to the culture of that community. Deaf culture, like all cultures, brings together a rich body of distinct customs, mannerisms, art, humour, and history as well as language. New Zealand Sign Language is a real language. It has its own grammatical structure, and it is different from that of either English or Māori. As we can see vividly illustrated before us now, it is not a collection of gestures or mime. It is like all other languages, in that it can communicate a full range of concepts.

Sign languages are not universal. I suppose some of us regard that as surprising, because would it not be a great outcome if there were a universality in sign languages? But that is not so. Of course, it means that New Zealand Sign Language is unique to our country. It is not used anywhere else in the world. It is also unique because it includes signs that express concepts from Māori culture.

I would like to say something very briefly about the work of the Justice and Electoral Committee, because that select committee, as Dr Hutchison has said, was privileged to hear a wide range of submissions across a broad grouping of topics. Although it is right to say that what Parliament is doing has in some sense a real symbolism about it, in creating New Zealand Sign Language as an official language, we are, in fact, concerned with much more than symbolism.

From a legal perspective, reflecting my background as a lawyer, I was particularly interested in what this bill means when looked at in relation to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act provides a statutory basis for a person who is deaf to access a New Zealand Sign Language interpreter in connection with criminal proceedings. What perhaps many of us have not sufficiently thought about, and the Law Commission has brought this to our attention, is that deaf people are disproportionately represented in the criminal statistics. Section 24(g) of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act confirms the right of persons charged with an offence who cannot understand or speak the language used in court to have the free assistance of an interpreter. The provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act would require that a person who is deaf, and who is involved in any processes that have a bearing on the resolution of proceedings, has access to a New Zealand Sign Language interpreter. The situation I am talking about is where a person is charged with an offence and is defending himself or herself, either unaided or with the assistance of a lawyer, in a court.

But there are wider implications surrounding the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. That legislation provides sufficiently broad rights to ensure that a person who is deaf, and who has been arrested or detained, is not disadvantaged or discriminated against on the grounds of his or her disability during the police interview process. Others have spoken of examples of situations where that becomes critically necessary. If people are to have the reality of the rights given by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, they need to be able to communicate clearly to the police or the other investigating authorities their position, their view of events, and their innocence.

Dr Hutchison also spoke about aspects relating to the resourcing of this legislation. There is no doubt that if it is to work well, we will need more Sign Language interpreters. I do not doubt that that will be a major task, because the subtlety and significance of, first of all, absorbing the language, and then interpreting it are skills that not many people will have. So I do not doubt that funding will be required, that a commitment will have to be made, and that volunteers will have to be sought so that this legislation will, on the exciting day on which it becomes an Act, have life breathed into it.

StewartBARBARA STEWART (NZ First) Link to this

On behalf of New Zealand First, I rise to support the second reading of the New Zealand Sign Language Bill. New Zealand First appreciates that this bill will give New Zealand Sign Language official recognition. As we have heard from the previous speaker, New Zealand Sign Language is a language in its own right and it is to have equal status to spoken languages. Our New Zealand Sign Language differs from that of other countries, just as spoken languages do. It is unique.

I was most interested to read that in 1997 the first Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language was published—a heavy hardback book containing over 4,000 signs and costing around $100. That publication was considered to be a milestone. Five years on, the editor, Graeme Kennedy, produced the concise version—a compact soft-cover book with 2,500 of the most commonly used signs—for about $60. This book was more accessible.

Today is another landmark day as this bill is a step closer to becoming law. New Zealand First believes that this bill is a significant step forward in achieving the vision of a fully inclusive New Zealand as is outlined in the Disability Strategy. The New Zealand Sign Language Bill represents a significant step forward for the Deaf community. The Deaf community and the Deaf Association have been seeking official recognition of their language for a long time. New Zealand First pays tribute to the dedication, the commitment, and the leadership of all of those involved in promoting and advancing this important bill.

As the Minister has pointed out, the immediate effect of the bill will be to provide people with the right to use sign language in any legal proceedings. That is an important component of access to justice.

The demand for interpreters will be increased with the passing of this legislation, in much the same way as occurred with the official recognition of the Māori language. We hope that sufficient people have been trained to ensure that this service can be provided. Now that sign language will be given official recognition, there must be adequate resourcing to ensure that competent interpreters are available as and when required. Unless a high level of competency can be guaranteed, there is a significant risk that the dialogue will not be relayed correctly.

It is very clear that differing standards of interpretation are needed according to the context of the interpretation. The skills required to interpret effectively in an educational environment would be considerably different from those required in a medical or legal environment. We are very aware that there is possibly a shortage of competent interpreters in New Zealand, as is the case overseas. Most interpreters would currently have an employer, and, no doubt, all the work they can handle. The recruitment and training of interpreters will now be a priority. We can only hope that this issue is being worked upon at the very highest levels. Commitment is essential.

New Zealand First is pleased with the introduction of the Diploma in Sign Language Interpreting offered by the Auckland University of Technology. It is the only course designed for sign language interpreting at this point in time. The starting date for that course is February 2006, and it is to be hoped that many students enrol. The successful completion of that 2-year full-time programme must be a prerequisite for employment, because the role of the interpreter is very specialised, with responsibility for facilitating and, overall, being an essential part of the communication between the deaf and the hearing people in society. Signing relies on a very accurate exchange of information that is often carried out at demanding rates, with complex concepts being communicated. We look forward to a steady stream of graduates from that course.

As many as one in five New Zealanders have been identified as having a permanent hearing impairment or disability. For many New Zealanders with a hearing disability, communication and access to information is a key issue. All too often, people are not able to participate in society, because they cannot get the information they need in the form they need it in. The Deaf community must be equipped with the resources necessary to enable them to participate fully within the community.

I was very pleased to read on the Wellington City Council website that the council offers a sign language interpreting service to improve communication between the Deaf community and the council. We hope that other councils have followed or will follow that example.

We will be very interested in the review of this legislation, to be carried out after 1 March 2009, as outlined in the bill. A great deal must be done to ensure that the Deaf community gains the ability to participate fully in society. It will be very timely to review progress at this time.

New Zealand First congratulates the Deaf community on all the work it has done to ensure that this legislation has reached Parliament. It is with great pleasure that New Zealand First supports this bill.

BradfordSUE BRADFORD (Green) Link to this

On behalf of the Green Party, I say how delighted we are to see this bill finally come back before the House. It seems like a long time since we first debated this bill back in June 2004, nearly 2 whole years ago. I am sorry that the processes of Parliament and the election have intervened to slow it down so seriously. I am just glad that this Government is sufficiently committed to disability issues to make sure that we are now dealing with this bill as a matter of priority. At least we are getting there. As of 1 March 2006 New Zealand Sign Language will be an official language of this country.

I sat on the Justice and Electoral Committee that dealt with this bill, and I must first of all say what a privilege it was to be part of a process in which all proceedings were interpreted between New Zealand Sign Language and English, and, as an MP, to begin to get even the smallest of insights into the language and culture of the Deaf community in New Zealand. I had had virtually no contact with New Zealand Sign Language prior to that experience, so it was a steep learning curve. Apart from anything else, I now have enormous respect for the skills and stamina of any New Zealand Sign Language interpreters. Select committee processes are long and difficult, anyway—to have to cope with and interpret for submitters, officials, and politicians must have been quite something.

A wide range of issues were canvassed during our consideration of this bill, and a number of amendments have been developed in response to submitters’ concerns—although, as with any legislation, it was impossible to accommodate everyone’s hopes and dreams. Above all, submitters revealed the deep need that exists for quality interpreting services in all aspects of the interface between the Government and citizens, not just as part of formal legal proceedings. People came to the select committee to talk to us about, for example, what it is like to deal with the mental health system when one is profoundly deaf and has no way of communicating clearly with doctors and nurses. We heard of problems with police and prisons, education, and welfare. Deaf people face enormous barriers when trying to access services and information from Government departments, much less when they get caught up with the State as, for example, a patient or prisoner.

I acknowledge that even though this bill is about to go through, there is still an enormously long way to go. Like others, I am pleased that interdepartmental working-groups are working to improve performance in four key areas: health, education, employment, and public broadcasting.

The committee also asked that the justice sector be added as a top priority, for although this bill as enacted will provide for the use of sign language in legal proceedings, there will still be a wide range of gaps at critical junctures even within the justice system—for example, when a person is first facing the police, or when he or she becomes a prisoner. From my own experience of being on that end of the law I know how hard communication can be, even when one is a hearing person with a good education and sound grasp of the English language. It is almost unimaginable what it must be like to be deaf and under threat or in the reality of arrest, or suffering the ongoing impacts of incarceration, without understanding what is going on or being able to tell one’s own side of the story.

Another area in which the committee took a particular interest was in the definition of interpretation. We reworded that so as to make clear the impacts in relation to both English and our country’s other official language, Māori. We also had a number of interesting discussions about how competency in interpretation might be defined. We discovered that a lot of work is continuing in this area, and although some of us would have liked to create a definition in this bill, it will still be possible for that to happen through regulation later on, if necessary.

One fact became glaringly obvious as submissions proceeded, and that was the existence of a severe shortage of fully trained and qualified interpreters in this country. For forward movement in this area it will be absolutely critical that the Government does everything it can to support the maintenance and development of the training that does exist, and facilitate the access of keen, would-be interpreters to that training. I was pleased to hear the comments the Minister made earlier about that area.

Each qualified interpreter is worth his or her weight in gold and, so far, there have been far too few of them. Some submitters put forward the view that this bill should establish a New Zealand Sign Language commission, in the same way that we have Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori. After discussion and advice we considered that, in this case, it would be preferable to establish an advisory group, with strong representation from the Deaf community. The purpose of that advisory group would be to monitor the effects of the legislation, to make sure it is achieving its stated goals, and to advise the Government on further steps it should take in future to promote New Zealand Sign Language. I sincerely hope the Government does make that happen, and does not just see this bill, or the Minister’s report that is required after 1 March 2009, as the end of the story.

In conclusion, I acknowledge all those who took the time and trouble to make submissions to us, particularly those from the Deaf community, who have had such a long struggle to make this bill a reality. I realise that they may remain considerably frustrated by the slow pace of progress, but I see this bill as a critical first step on a journey towards a society and Government that fully recognises and uses their language as part of its operations. I thank them for all their work, and for the privilege of sharing even a tiny portion of their lives, language, and culture with us. This bill is a testament to their courage.

TuriaTARIANA TURIA (Co-Leader—Māori Party) Link to this

Today we bear witness to the great event of New Zealand Sign Language being wrapped around our Deaf community, providing the warmth and protection of one’s language as a primary means of being in the world. It has often been said that the limits of our language are the limits of our world, and today that world becomes progressively larger for some 28,000 people who are already familiar with New Zealand Sign Language. It also becomes larger for their families, for their communities, and, indeed, for us all. It is a most important day—a day that inevitably draws me back to August 1987 and to the passing of the Maori Language Act that declared Māori an official language of New Zealand.

Today, in conferring that same official status to New Zealand Sign Language, we acknowledge the political will, the determined commitment of the Deaf community, and the recognition of all the specialist support that has made this possible. I particularly commend the Minister for having the insight and fortitude to carry this through—tēnā koe, Ruth. From that day in 1987 on, the Maori Language Act has made it possible to recognise te reo Māori in law, and allows it to be used in the courts. From the basis of that Act, te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori is charged with promoting Māori language as a living language, and as an ordinary means of communication. It is from the normalising of Māori language as an ordinary language and a living language that our world has changed, and there have now been some 136,000 speakers of te reo.

Indeed, I would hasten to suggest that even in this House every single member will have been influenced by the expansion of the use of te reo Māori. We have heard maiden speeches delivered entirely, or spoken for the most part, in te reo; we have observed the way members have sought to address pronunciation issues, and we have heard familiar greetings—tēnā koe, ka kite, he pātai tāku—becoming more commonplace, and the Standing Orders Committee will shortly be considering the important initiative in simultaneous translation to initiate facilities for immediate comprehension of te reo. Our world is expanding daily and, who knows, one day New Zealand Sign Language may be normalised in almost every public setting. It is a long way from the days when Naida Glavish was threatened with dismissal for saying “Kia ora”, or our mothers and fathers were strapped for speaking their native tongue.

For this significant population within Aotearoa, the same but different experiences of marginalisation, of isolation, and of prejudice will also have shaped their memories of expressing themselves in their language. We have heard the stories of deaf children’s hands being strapped behind their backs to stop them from signing. The existence of sign language for years was ignored by officialdom. This new bill confronts all of those days gone by, through establishing New Zealand Sign Language with the official recognition of a national language, and with the purpose of giving it proper status and giving the Deaf access to interpreters for legal proceedings.

The Māori Party celebrates this historic breakthrough and will support this bill through its passage in the House. We are pleased for those for whom it serves, but it does not go far enough. For we want, today, to give recognition to a very significant population within the minority Deaf culture. Hearing loss is an important issue that impacts in a major way on our mokopuna, tamariki, and whānau. Research would suggest that Māori who are deaf make up 30 percent of the Deaf community. For our tamariki and mokopuna the results are particularly stark. In 2001, Māori children under 19 comprised a record 48 percent of the deafness notifications despite being only 19 percent of the population—that is, almost half of all notifications of deafness in this nation were for Māori children. If we want to think of closing the gaps this might be a good place to start, for in the age groups of 15 to 24 years hearing disability afflicts young Māori at a rate that is 3.5 times more than non-Māori.

So how do these high numbers of Māori Deaf fare in a world that is frequently dismissive or unprepared to face the challenge inherent in taking up other means of communicating, isolated from the very essence of who they are? The world of Māori Deaf is constrained by linguistic and cultural boundaries that could be broken down through understanding of sign language and te reo Māori. One of the most profound experiences in my life was when a young man came here to Parliament, into my office, and having stood up to mihi to me he sang his waiata using sign, and not a sound was heard. I was deeply moved as it made me understand how isolated the Māori Deaf can be from the Māori world. I appreciated that the support he had alongside of him was vital to help us to understand and communicate.

The significance of this bill today is that for Māori Deaf official recognition increases the likelihood of being able to use New Zealand Sign Language at hui, marae, and tangi, and increases their access to te reo, tikanga, and whakapapa. Inevitably, of course, the crunch issue lies in resourcing constraints, and we have heard that from other speakers. As I noted earlier, Māori are over-represented in the Deaf community, yet there is a shortage of Māori teachers, signers, court interpreters, and community aid.

A particular concern that the Māori Party would like to see addressed and further advanced in legislation is the complete inability of the bill to address the issue of trilingual interpreters and to recognise trilingual interpretation—Māori, sign, and English. The number of trilingual signers is very few and far between. The Auckland University of Technology trilingual interpreting course was cut as part of the Government’s so-called race-based funding cuts of 2004. It was yet another example of the ethnic targeting no-go zone promoted by the Government. The tragedy of this is that it denies Māori Deaf access into Māori hui where te reo is used. Māori Deaf have every right to understand the true meaning of the processes and kōrero that occur on the marae. Sign language interpreting helps bridge those communication gaps.

This bill must make provision for the urgent need to recruit, train, and retain Māori student interpreters. This is an idea that was first raised at the Taumata Matauranga hosted by Ngāti Tūwharetoa paramount chief Tumu te Heuheu in 2001. The hui brought forward the idea of offering scholarships to train sign language interpreters fluent in te reo Māori. Such scholarships are practical solutions that respond to the dreams and aspirations of our whānau for their children’s access to kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa through the support of New Zealand Sign Language interpreters fluent in te reo. We know that there are some great things happening for Māori Deaf. The initiatives at Ruamoku Marae and at the Auckland University of Technology in supporting student sign language interpreters are exciting, and we also know of the hard work of groups such as Te Roopu Waiora that are focused on the needs of Māori Deaf.

The Māori Party is proud to promote wider recognition of te reo as the first and official language of this country. We welcome the inclusion of New Zealand Sign Language as another official language and we do so particularly under the opportunities for bi-literacy, and even tri-literacy, afforded to the nation by virtue of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Our tūpuna have often gifted us with whakatauki to convey a message about the world in which we inhabit. They are ways of conveying the feelings, values, emotions, and visions that serve to help mould our character and discover a universal truth. These language pictures are best expressed in te reo. But for the significance of today I hope my concluding words will benefit from trilingual interpretation.

Anei tātou nā ko te pā anō tātou nā he rā ki tua.

Here we are in the night, comforted by the day soon to follow. There is light ahead. Nō reira, tēnā koutou katoa.

TurnerJUDY TURNER (Deputy Leader—United Future) Link to this

I rise on behalf of United Future to speak in support of the second reading of the New Zealand Sign Language Bill. Let me say, first of all, that I was not a member of the select committee, the Justice and Electoral Committee, that worked on this bill, but I have noted the report of the committee and have made a couple of notes that I think are significant.

Firstly, in all the 195 submissions received by the committee no one opposed the bill, and all expressed strong support for the recognition of New Zealand Sign Language as an official language of New Zealand. I also noted that 104 people contributed to the submission process by using sign language, and that the advent of video conferencing made possible a new and important way for those who are hearing impaired to enjoy greater access to, and greater participation in, the parliamentary process. Long may this continue, not just on issues relating to deafness but on all matters concerning Parliament.

It is also worth noting that the committee chose to make reference in its report to the fact that no one on the committee could communicate in Sign Language. Yet, with the help of interpreters and the Deaf Studies Research Unit of Victoria University, the process went very smoothly. The report pays tribute both to those who supported the committee with advice and interpretation skills and to the Deaf submitters who worked with them so well.

The passage of the bill is an important milestone for the hearing-impaired community, but it should not be, and is not intended to be, an end in itself. The committee has recommended that an advisory group be established to monitor the effects of the legislation against its stated purpose. Many submitters expressed concern that the application of the bill must not be neglected. They noted that there was a need for sign language to be promoted proactively, and that merely giving the language official recognition was not necessarily going to achieve that.

The initial obligations and applications under the bill will be in the justice arena, but the current efforts by interdepartmental working-groups to remove language barriers for the Deaf community in the health, education, employment, and broadcasting sectors need to be encouraged and to have measurable time frames around any goals that are set. The select committee noted that even the justice sector could consider improving services beyond the obvious applications outlined in the bill. United Future supports the amendment, which was agreed to by the committee, that requires all Government departments to take responsibility for consulting with Deaf communities on matters that relate to New Zealand Sign Language. That is to ensure that departments do not sit back passively and wait for the Office for Disability Issues to initiate discussions on relative issues.

United Future believes that as the interpretation services workforce capacity is built over time—and that must be a priority—then amendments to the bill should be actioned so that the current barriers faced by deaf people when accessing services and information are removed progressively and deliberately. Funding considerations will be the measure of any Government’s commitment to removing barriers to the hearing impaired. The select committee shied away from making specific recommendations in this regard, and suggested that the matter would need more specific attention once the period of monitoring and reporting had been completed.

United Future is therefore very pleased to be supporting the bill, and congratulates everyone who has played a part in progressing it through the select committee process. With 8 percent of the adult population affected in some way by hearing impairment, it is good news that the bill moves another step towards becoming law. I take a moment to welcome to the public gallery those people who are affected most by the bill, and I want to thank the interpreter for making what I am saying understandable.

RoyHEATHER ROY (Deputy Leader—ACT) Link to this

I rise to speak to the second reading of the New Zealand Sign Language Bill on behalf of ACT New Zealand. Some people will be disappointed to learn that the ACT party is opposing the bill. I ask them not to be offended, for we mean no offence. We applaud the intent of the bill, but fear the wider-reaching implications of it.

In the first reading of the bill, ACT’s Gerry Eckhoff spoke movingly of his own experience of deafness, and, in particular, of the difficulties that he faced growing up as a hearing-impaired child. He described his difficulty in the classroom, the school reports stating he did not pay attention in class and could try harder, and his reputation as a troublemaker because he switched off when he could not follow what was going on. I am sure that many will be able to relate to that situation.

The reason that we oppose the bill is that it is unlikely to do anything to help members of the Deaf community. The reason for that is simple. The Government is proposing to create rights for Deaf people to use New Zealand Sign Language, but it has no plan in place to fund the provision of the services that would be necessary for those rights to be met. There are people who think that the money will be found, just because the right is established. I ask them to think again. The Minister of Finance guards his surplus millions closely, and can scarcely bring himself to part with a single cent. We have seen legislation like this before, with the establishment of rights on paper that do not exist in reality. The absence of any Treasury comment on this bill means that nobody in authority has even begun to think of how to pay for its provisions.

Perhaps the best thing about this bill, and there are many good things in it, is that it has highlighted the issue of communication for the deaf. The discussion and debate it has attracted has certainly heightened general awareness, and that in itself is very positive. That is why ACT supported the bill at its first reading and its progress to the Justice and Electoral Committee. The intention of the bill is very creditable.

We also agree that in legal processes it is essential that a deaf person, like every New Zealander, be presented with information in a way that he or she is readily able to understand. History has many examples, and we have heard some today, of injustices suffered by the deaf because they could not follow proceedings.

From my previous career as a health professional, I know that in the hospital setting the provision of translation services is a frequent problem. It is a problem for deaf patients and for people who do not speak English. It is usually possible to organise translators, but when interviewing patients, health professionals are conscious that they are relying on the translator’s goodwill. Translators are expected to provide the service in their own time, or, if they are hospital employees, in addition to their usual duties. In that situation there is a tendency to make use of family members as translators, but that can create problems of its own with regard to sensitive issues. Those obstacles are not, of course, confined just to the hospital setting, but impinge on every facet of life.

A better approach is the one that is used in Britain, for example. It is to provide a budget for translators, so that they are paid for their work and in proportion to the time they devote to it. It is a simple and relatively cheap, practical measure that would help people to get more accurate diagnosis and better treatment, and it would assist everybody involved.

However, good intentions alone do not automatically translate into good lawmaking. Making New Zealand Sign Language an official language will not in itself achieve very much, without proper support and definite funding allocations. There is absolutely no evidence of that in this bill. In ACT’s view, it would be more useful to follow the Australian example of recognising the Deaf community as a language group. In Australia the policy is as follows: “It is now increasingly recognised that signing deaf people constitute a group like any other non-English speaking language group in Australia, with a distinct sub-culture recognised by shared history, social life and sense of identity, united and symbolized by fluency in Auslan, the principal means of communication with the Australian Deaf Community.” ACT believes that that approach would be more appropriate for the New Zealand situation.

Another issue is that sign languages differ from country to country. The international sign language was Gestuno. Now called International Sign Language, that is what is used at international conferences and meetings. The obvious comparison is in the world of music. A musical score can be read by those with musical training no matter whether their native language is Spanish, Arabic, Cantonese, English, or any other language. To give New Zealand Sign Language official status, as the bill proposes, automatically disadvantages those signing in any other sign language. According to the 2001 New Zealand disability survey, some 7,700 partially or completely deaf adults live in households using New Zealand Sign Language and/or Signed English, and another 51,000 are able to lip-read. Although that is a significant number, the question that must be asked is whether that is sufficient for New Zealand Sign Language to constitute an official language.

An unintended consequence of awarding official recognition to New Zealand Sign Language may well be for other non - English speaking groups to then seek official recognition of their languages. For example, can we expect demands for Braille to be extended similar status, or for other spoken languages such as Mandarin or Cantonese to receive official status?

If this bill is passed, I predict that the services necessary to fulfil the obligations of organisations will not be in place. Our current Government will then move slowly to fill the gap, hiring full-time translators who will then spend very little of their working day doing the job they were hired for. I have to wonder whether the money could not be better spent on the treatment of deafness. In my research into this subject, I discovered that 21 percent of partially or completely deaf adults in households had an unmet need for some type of special equipment or service related to their disability. The most common reason for that unmet need was financial. It seems that if Government money is to be spent, then that might be a good place to start.

Politics is not confined just to this debating chamber, and I am aware that some in the Deaf community look on lip-reading as a poor relation to sign language. Yet approximately 51,000 hearing-impaired Kiwis lip-read—a fact that should not be overlooked.

To conclude, the ACT party supports the aspiration of the Deaf community to integrate fully into society and accepts that that will quite rightly involve greater use of sign language. We have doubts about the wisdom of making New Zealand Sign Language an official language, and feel that this bill, as it stands, will give the appearance of progress but achieve very little. That outcome is the worst of all worlds.

BarnettTIM BARNETT (Labour—Christchurch Central) Link to this

This is a proud day for people who are deaf and hard of hearing in New Zealand, for those who lobbied for years to give real status to New Zealand Sign Language, and also for my colleague Ruth Dyson, who has been the all-too-important voice inside the tent as Minister for Disability Issues.

Reported back from the Justice and Electoral Committee, which I chaired when this bill went through public submission and subsequent detailed consideration and some amendment, the bill is now starting the last lap of its complicated journey from idea to law. As previous chairperson of the committee, I want to highlight some of the issues raised in the committee’s report. One hundred and ninety-five public submissions were received, and over a period of 8½ hours we heard 26 of them. They were the people who told us that they wanted to talk further.

I say “heard” nervously, as among the numerous profound effects that our work on the bill had on our committee members was a careful examination of the everyday language that we used. Maybe National’s PC eradicator could learn a lesson from the fact that some language that we in the hearing community regard as normal is far from normal or acceptable to some. Not often could I say that Parliament has, through its select committee process, released voices that were just wanting to cry out, but this was certainly one occasion when that was happening. All 11 members of the committee went through an intense awareness-raising process and became quite gripped by trying to work through the implications of the proposed law. One of the great things about select committees is that they offer that direct contact with ordinary New Zealanders with something to say, and also something to challenge.

The bill is fairly short and straightforward, but as we tried to see how it would work in a variety of public services and contexts, the full implications and the inevitable difficulties became very obvious. For example, we considered whether the New Zealand Sign Language used by Māori who are fluent in te reo required a separate recognition. On repeated advice we concluded that it did not. We considered the establishment of an equivalent to the Māori Language Commission to nurture and promote the development of New Zealand Sign Language. After much thought we decided that although the function was important, more basic challenges, such as the shortages of signers, were more urgent. We looked at the range of public services that might develop detailed plans, and even separate regulations or laws, relating to New Zealand Sign Language. We were pleased that working-groups involving people from various Government departments and the Deaf community itself were working on four particular areas: health, education, employment, and public broadcasting. These were stated in the select committee hearings by people from the Deaf community to be the most important areas. Add to that the justice-focused rights that are explicit in the bill. We were gratified to see that the issues raised by submitters were the issues that the system was already starting to address.

Communication is at the heart of the bill. The Justice and Electoral Committee members did not have skills in sign language, and even tuition by experts, who are present today in the Gallery, did not help very much. The lead adviser to the committee and a team of signers did much to open our eyes, both to the barriers presented by our world to people who are deaf and also to the liberation offered by sign language. I thank them and the committee staff who took us along that journey.

This bill generates but a modest cost to the State in order to implement, and I believe we have a moral and a legal duty to do that. I find it extraordinary that some put the issue of resources before the issue of fundamental rights for people who are deaf, particularly in a situation where we are moving towards universal rights—United Nations - instituted rights—for people with disabilities. I find it amazing that someone would deny even the modest rights contained in this legislation. I commend the bill to the House. It is historic, it is a first for New Zealand, and it is the proper thing to do.

WagnerNICKY WAGNER (National) Link to this

As we have heard from several other speakers today, sign language in New Zealand has had a chequered career. Although British Sign Language was introduced by deaf immigrants, and sign language tutors were working in New Zealand as early as 1880, the first schools for the deaf banned sign language, and signing was forbidden. An Act of Parliament allowed only oral education for the deaf, and kids were punished for signing. It is a very similar story to that of Māori. But, kids being kids, and desperate to communicate, they continued to sign among themselves in their dormitories. Those school signs, combined with English Sign Language, have become the basis of New Zealand Sign Language.

New Zealand Sign Language is unique to our country. It encompasses cultural ideas and traditions, both European and Māori, that are our very own, and it is something we should be very proud of. Its present form is relatively new, and it is enshrined in the Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language, which was published in 1997.

The New Zealand Sign Language Bill means that 125 years after sign language first came to this country, our own locally developed language will now be recognised as being an official language of New Zealand. That means that, as an official language, the use of New Zealand Sign Language will be maintained and promoted. The bill has been strongly supported by the Deaf community, which has worked long and hard over the last 20 years to receive official recognition for New Zealand Sign Language.

Most New Zealanders have no idea what being deaf means. The frustration of watching an interesting television programme with no sound can give us only the slightest inkling. The submissions reflected on the huge price that deaf people pay because of difficulties with communication. They understand only too well that the lack of effective communication brings social isolation and, with that, often frustration, loneliness, and despair. Research tells us that children who are deaf and who do not sign take far longer than hearing children to develop mentally and socially. Their language skills and their personal motivation suffer.

Poor communication often leads to low self-esteem, low achievement, and low levels of social interaction. As children who have poor communication skills become adults, their employment opportunities are limited, and access to the public information and services that hearing people take for granted can be irritatingly difficult. Work, and the rewards that we receive from having a job, are a very important part of life. It is much harder for deaf people to get work and to keep it, and they have a significantly higher unemployment rate than the norm. It is not surprising that deaf people suffer disproportionately from depression, and far too many commit suicide or end up in jail.

The bill also provides the right to use New Zealand Sign Language in legal proceedings, where signing is a person’s first or preferred language. By using sign language, and with skilled interpreters, there will be more effective communication for the Deaf in our courts and tribunals, and we hope that that will help to reduce frustration levels and miscommunication with officialdom. It is also hoped that it may underpin better judgments.

Many submitters saw this bill as a small, first step towards a whole raft of measures where the use of sign language and the provision of interpreters could enhance quality of life for the Deaf. They want more interpreters in education, in health, and in all parts of daily life. Many submitters explained in graphic detail the huge reliance they have on interpreters to get them through their days and the problems of obtaining them when they were needed. Some of the stories were truly heartbreaking. As we know, submitters supported the bill unanimously, as did all the parties that spoke in the House on the first reading.

Everyone will celebrate when this bill is passed into law, but I have some real concerns about its implementation. It is an enormously important bill for the Deaf community. The Deaf community has worked long and hard for it, and it is keenly supported by the House. Therefore, it is imperative that it does not disappoint. I am concerned that although the bill states things the public wants to hear, it may not deliver—for two reasons. Firstly, despite concerns expressed during the first reading, there has been very little discussion about the costs created by the bill or the earmarking of money to pay for its provisions. I could find no budget advice, no fiscal impact report, and no Treasury report. As we all know, unless funding for new services is allocated, then, regardless of rhetoric, nothing tends to happen. Already in the House this week we have seen important roading projects that, time and time again, have been promised to the public being postponed or pushed out into the never-never because of a lack of money.

Secondly, competent interpreters are the key to the effectiveness of this bill, and although some interpreter training is under way, there is a real fear that there may not be enough trained interpreters to meet the demand. We defeat the whole purpose of the bill unless experienced and competent interpreters are available. Ensuring the highest standard of competency is enormously important, and there is provision in this bill for regulating the quality of work, if necessary. But a lack of skilled interpreters will leave the Deaf community back where it started.

This is a good bill, but the Government needs to deliver the money, and with it the skilled personnel, to make sure that it really means something for the Deaf community. I would hate to see all its hard work, the work of this House and our select committees, and the very good intentions of this bill undermined because the Government has not fully considered the fiscal or personnel ramifications or has not allocated money. National takes great pleasure in supporting the second reading of the New Zealand Sign Language Bill.

HereoraDAVE HEREORA (Labour) Link to this

I take the opportunity for a short call on this bill, given that I am now an ex-member of the Justice and Electoral Committee and I participated in the hearing of submissions at the time when I was a member. I have been keen to keep a close eye on the progress of this bill—hence the reason why I have entered the Chamber—and I am thankful for the opportunity to raise a few issues.

I would like to commend the Minister for Disability Issues, Ruth Dyson, for having the foresight to promote the bill and the effects this legislation will have, and I thank her for that.

I recall that when I was talking with submitters about the issues surrounding the setting up of a commission, we talked about the comparison with the Māori Language Commission. I see from the bill that the select committee has agreed to the establishment of an advisory group, which would have the role of monitoring the effects of the legislation against its stated purposes. It is my view that as time progresses we will need to seriously consider implementing a commission. I know from my experience in promoting Māori language and the reo that that is a good platform to continue to promote the development of any language.

I also recall learning about sign language through the process of hearing submissions, learning that there are subtle differences between the language from country to country and learning that sign language includes signs in respect of the reo. I thought that was pretty amazing. Having the opportunity to learn that was, for me, unique.

This bill represents a platform to ensure that the language is protected and promoted. But we must also be conscious that the language must be given an opportunity to survive, which is the reason why practising it on its own is not enough. We need to give more consensus to the development of the language. I recall also that part of that development was in relation to ensuring that we had quality interpreters, and I do disagree with the ACT member when she stated that the bill will do nothing for the language. I do think that recognising the language in the way that we are doing gives the opportunity to continue to promote it, to practise it, and to consider further ways to achieve that outcome.

I commend the bill to the House.

Link to this

A party vote was called for on the question,

That the New Zealand Sign Language Bill be now read a second time.

Ayes 119

Noes 2

Bill read a second time.


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