Sunday, April 09, 2006

Kerre Woodham: Sign language a great lingua franca - bring it on

I know that the passing of the New Zealand Sign Language Bill sounds like something Wayne Mapp, National's spokesman for political correctness, should be leaping up and down about.

But Mapp, and indeed the rest of the country's MPs, with the exception of the two Act members, passed the bill without a murmur. Now, New Zealand Sign Language is accorded the same status as Maori and English and members of the deaf community can request an interpreter when dealing with the justice system and some government departments.

In the past, there have been issues with deaf people being arrested for disorderly conduct when their attempts to communicate were seen as aggressive behaviour. And there have also been reports of a lack of informed consent when it comes to medical procedures because of the absence of sign interpreters.

Advocates of the bill say it's also an acknowledgment of the deaf community and the unique language of sign - although given that there are more than 200,000 deaf or hearing-impaired people in New Zealand, and just 28,000 people who use sign, the deaf community has its work cut out getting everybody to speak the same language.

I love the idea of learning sign - apparently, teaching infants sign language is the latest thing to do. Forget Baby Beethoven - sign's the thing. And the idea of a completely silent language appeals - no more having to endure loud, one-sided conversations from idiots on cellphones; no more being an unwilling audience to conversations involving the removal of gall bladders or the reasons for a marriage break-up.

Apparently you can yell in sign language but if you don't want to hear, you can close your eyes. No, bring it on. It will make a great lingua franca for all the cultures and communities that make up New Zealand.

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