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June 22, 2004

Sign language on way to becoming official language

From:, New Zealand - Jun 22, 2004

Parliament banded together today to take the first step in making New Zealand sign language an official language.

The New Zealand Sign Language Bill passed unanimously before a public gallery packed with those it will impact upon most – the deaf and hearing impaired.

Making sign, used by about 28,000 New Zealanders, an official language means it can be used in court or other legal proceedings.

Disability Issues Minister Ruth Dyson said sign was the natural visual and gestural language of more than 7000 deaf New Zealanders; people who made up a distinct and dynamic cultural group.

Sign was central to that culture and was a real language, with its own grammatical structure which was different to that of English or Maori.

"Contrary to popular misconception, it is not a collection of gestures or mime," she said.

"It is like all other languages in that it can communicate a full range of concepts."

ACT MP Gerry Eckhoff, Parliament's only hearing-impaired MP, told the House he could remember as a child asking his classmates what the teacher was saying. But other kids would get sick of answering his questions, he would get sick of asking, and so he switched off.

Mr Eckhoff told of report cards which constantly said "doesn't pay attention in class" or "could try harder".

"I would often get caned for distracting the class or fooling around because my world was often one of blurred sounds as it is today," he said.

"I have been ridiculed in this chamber because I did not hear the Speaker call me, and I miss so much of the repartee that occurs in this debating chamber."

However, his challenges paled into insignificance alongside those who could communicate only by sign language, Mr Eckhoff said.

He hoped the bill would be the start of an awareness of the needs of the deaf community.

The deaf community had been seeking official recognition of their language for 20 years and turned out in forced to see the bill pass its first hurdle.

Many were present during the preceding question time and chattered – with their hands – throughout. But once debate on the bill started all eyes were on the translator standing next to the Speaker.

The bill will be considered by Parliament's justice and electoral committee.

© Fairfax New Zealand Limited 2004.