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Brief History of New Zealand Sign Language in New Zealand

For 100 years, the use of New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) by Deaf people was actively prohibited in New Zealand, in particular, Deaf people were banned from using sign language in the classroom.  Many Deaf people recall experiences of being caught signing, and the subsequent punishments that followed, including being forced to sit on their hands.

There were misconceptions by those in authority that sign language was not a ‘real language’ and was an inferior form of communication to spoken language.  Deaf people were forced into using an oral method of communication, namely lip reading and speaking.  Modern linguistic research confirms that sign languages are in fact real languages. Lip reading involves a lot of guesswork and is a far inferior form of communication for New Zealand’s Deaf Community when compared to NZSL.  English is a second language for many Deaf people. 

In recent years, access to education has significantly improved for Deaf New Zealanders, but for years Deaf people had limited access to information in the classroom, which resulted in low literacy levels for many of them. By the use of NZSL, however, Deaf people are able to better access other languages, including English and Maori, resulting in improved literacy.


Official Recognition of New Zealand Sign Language

For years, The Deaf Community lobbied for the government to give official recognition to NZSL as the true and natural language of Deaf New Zealanders.  In April 2006, this dream was finally achieved.  The NZSL Act was passed by parliament, and New Zealand Sign Language became an official language of New Zealand.

The purpose of the New Zealand Sign Language Act is to promote and maintain the use of New Zealand Sign Language by:


·      Declaring NZSL to be an official language of New Zealand


·      Providing for the use of NZSL in legal proceedings (such as courts)

·      Empowering the making of regulations setting competency standard for NZSL interpreters in legal proceedings

·      Stating principles to guide government departments in the promotion and use of NZSL

The establishment of the NZSL Act is a huge milestone for Deaf New Zealanders.