Published Thursday 11 May 2023

Before we ‘sign off’ on NZ Sign Language Week, we spoke with District New Zealand Sign Language lead Shannon Morris!

Shannon is Capital, Coast and Hutt Valley’s NZ Sign Language Lead. She was born Deaf to a hearing family, which is the case for 95 per cent of deaf children. Her parents didn’t know Shannon was deaf until she was a few months old, when they noticed she was not responding to any sounds they made towards her.

Shannon said she was first introduced to the ‘deaf world’ when her parents started taking night classes to learn New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). They both wanted the best for her in both worlds – the deaf world and the hearing world. Using NZSL and spoken English would enable Shannon to access to both cultures and languages. 

What does NZ Sign Language Week mean to you?

“The Deaf community lobbied for decades to have NZSL recorded as an official language for New Zealand. Once it was passed on 6 April 2006, NZSL Week was set up as an annual event to acknowledge those Deaf people who have endlessly worked hard so we can celebrate and share our beautiful living and evolving language with others. NZSL enables the Deaf community to thrive and break down barriers. NZSL is for everyone.  We are excited to promote our treasured NZSL to all Kiwis, and we always look forward to celebrating everyday Deaf Kiwis.” 

How much has NZSL helped you?

“It gave me an identity. I belong to a group of Deaf people who like to meet up and enjoy time together because of our shared experiences of deafness. This community is called the Deaf community. The deaf community is a small, unique community with a strong identity. Many of us are people who have been deaf all their lives and have deaf friends or family. Many members will know each other from deaf schools, clubs or events for deaf people that they have gone to together.”

How essential is NZSL in health?

“Deaf people are just like anyone else; they access health services per usual. However, acknowledging them being Deaf or hard of hearing, it’s important they have equal access when obtaining health care. This could be accommodated by having an interpreter or staff being able to sign basic phrases. It is so essential because we are human beings. It is the only barrier we have to endure in a hearing world. It is the services we access that are a barrier.”

Do you believe NZSL has moved forward, or is there still a long way to go?

“New Zealand Sign Language is one of our official languages. There are around 23,000 Kiwis using NZSL every day whilst it is a threatened language. I believe it is essential for everyone to learn it. My son, Micah, 8, is hearing and speaks English, but NZSL is his first and primary language. Not only will it help you communicate with the Deaf community, but it will also enrich your cultural experience and become an ally to revitalising this taonga.”

What are some tips for health staff when assisting deaf or hard of hearing people?

  1. Book an interpreter. A patient should not use a friend or family member to interpret for them. They will not know medical jargon or be trained to interpret health information. Ask them if they want an NZSL interpreter - and book one! iSign is one of NZ’s Interpreters Booking agencies.
  2. Remove your facemask where necessary. The Disability Leadership Group has facemasks with a clear panel in front. Please contact them if you’d like one.
  3. Talk directly to your patient, not the person interpreting for them.
  4. Make sure you have your patient’s attention before talking. The patient will need to be able to see the interpreter.
  5. Maintain eye contact whilst communicating. Don’t talk to your patient whilst looking at your computer screen, filling out paperwork or turning around. Avoid covering your mouth with your hands or paper.
  6. Use normal lip movement. You don’t need to over exaggerate each word, and don’t mumble, because this can make it difficult to lip-read.
  7. Speak at a normal volume. Shouting can be uncomfortable for a patient wearing hearing aids.
  8. Make sure the room is well lit so that the patient can see your face clearly.
  9. Speak in plain English at a normal speed. 
  10. Use written notes or diagrams to assist if you are having difficulty explaining something. But remember that Deaf people have different communication needs, so writing information down won’t be helpful for everyone.  If your patient doesn’t understand you, try and think of a different way to explain yourself rather than repeating the same words again.
  11. Use gestures and facial expressions to help explain yourself. Show with your face if something is painful, scary, or nothing to worry about.
  12. Point to parts of your body if necessary.
  13. Keep checking to make sure your patient understands you.  If your patient doesn’t understand you, try and think of a different way to explain yourself.

“It’s important that the health service (not the patient) book an interpreter in advance of the patient’s appointment. This is a basic right for Deaf people and one that will ensure your patient has a clear understanding of their health and the information you are telling them.”

There are a number of ways to learn NZSL: