Sys­tem ‘iso­lat­ing’ sign lan­guage kids

Kapi-Mana News - - NEWS - By AN­DREA O’NEIL

It may be an of­fi­cial lan­guage of New Zealand but sign lan­guage is of­ten de­nied to deaf peo­ple – some­thing a Ti­tahi Bay fam­ily hopes to change.

The Fer­gu­sons – deaf dad Oliver and daugh­ter Zoe, 11, and hear­ing mum Brid­get and son Eli­jah, 9, spent the week­end at a camp and con­fer­ence for deaf fam­i­lies in Christchurch. The chil­dren got a rare chance to play with oth­ers like them, while their par­ents were plan­ning to net­work like mad in hopes of im­prov­ing ed­u­ca­tion for deaf Welling­ton chil­dren.

The Fer­gu­sons moved to Syd­ney when Zoe was young, to give her the ben­e­fits of a spe­cial­ist school for deaf chil­dren.

When they moved back to New Zealand she started at St Pius X School, which has em­braced sign lan­guage. Zoe’s whole class greeted her in sign lan­guage on her first day, and the school started lunchtime sign lan­guage clubs.

That ac­cep­tance of sign lan­guage is all too rare, Mr Fer­gu­son says. Deaf chil­dren are dis­cour­aged from learn­ing sign lan­guage by med­i­cal and ed­u­ca­tion spe­cial­ists, and en­cour­aged to lip read and get hear­ing aids and cochlear im­plants in­stead. There is no sup­port sys­tem for par­ents of deaf preschool­ers to learn or teach sign lan­guage, he says.

The fear is deaf chil­dren will iso­late them­selves by ex­clu­sively learn­ing sign lan­guage, but of­ten kids fail to learn lip read­ing and fall be­hind at school, Mr Fer­gu­son says.

‘‘They’re iso­lat­ing them. It’s a very med­i­cal sys­tem, like they need to be fixed. We’re not sick,’’ he says. ‘‘ Give them ac­cess to sound but why not let them learn sign lan­guage as well? Give them ac­cess to both worlds. You can do both, you can be bilin­gual.’’

More money is spent by the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion teach­ing hear­ing chil­dren to sign than is spent on sup­port­ing deaf kids them­selves, with fund­ing short­ages leav­ing most kids with­out in­ter­preters or teacher aides for much of the school day, Mr Fer­gu­son says.

The at­ti­tude starts at birth. Zoe is a third-gen­er­a­tion deaf child – Mr Fer­gu­son’s par­ents are deaf – which wasn’t seen by many as some­thing to cel­e­brate, he says.

‘‘Many peo­ple said ‘oh, a deaf baby, how sad’. For us it wasn’t, it was ex­cit­ing.’’

Mr Fer­gu­son, a board mem­ber of Deaf Aotearoa and Van Asch deaf school in Christchurch, would love to see a school for deaf kids set up in Welling­ton, or at least an ed­u­ca­tion hub they can take some lessons at.

He would also like to see sign lan­guage em­braced by the wider com­mu­nity.

‘‘We need to get out there in the com­mu­nity more and let hear­ing peo­ple know we’re nor­mal, sign lan­guage is just an­other lan­guage. We can do ev­ery­thing ex­cept hear.’’

The Fer­gu­sons at­tended the deaf camp thanks to a grant from Jet­star.

Sign of the times: Ti­tahi Bay’s Fer­gu­son fam­ily – from top, Oliver, Brid­get, Zoe and Eli­jah – headed to a deaf camp and con­fer­ence last week­end where sign lan­guage in schools was ex­pected to be a hot topic. The fam­ily spell ‘‘deaf camp’’.

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