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March 28, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Hear Me Now

Cultural ignorance is often the biggest barrier for any minority culture.

The New Zealand Deaf community has faced severe oppression, akin to that of Maori culture, in the past. For almost a century, sign languages were prohibited and seen as inferior to learning to speak and lip-read English. Deaf children were punished for using signs, and made to sit with their arms crossed in school. Only relatively recently have sign languages begun to be acknowledged as legitimate languages.

Sign language is the natural result of a culture which requires visual communication. New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) has its own history, originating from Australian Sign Language but over time evolving to reflect New Zealand’s unique culture. For example, NZSL includes unique signs for Maori terminology and concepts which no other sign language has. Neither are sign languages simply hand gestures to correspond with English words; they have a unique vocabulary and grammar.

Nearly every country in the world has its own sign language. One common question for hearing people new to Deaf culture is why there is not one universal sign language, to which I respond: why is there not one universal spoken language? Just as spoken languages have emerged and differentiated over time, so too have sign languages. Another common misconception is the idea that sign languages are somehow simpler languages than spoken ones. This is not the case: anything you can express in English, you can express in NZSL.

Greater cultural awareness in recent years has begun to acknowledge Deaf as a unique culture in its own right. The NZSL Act 2006 was a huge milestone for the Deaf as it finally acknowledged NZSL as a native language of New Zealand.

Many hearing people are often unsure how to behave when interacting with Deaf people. Not knowing the norms, one runs the risk of unconsciously offending someone. Should you raise your voice and talk slower? Should you get out a pen and pad? Should you give up and ignore them? (Do not give up and ignore them!).

It’s always best to begin by asking a Deaf person what mode of communication would work best for them. If you don’t know how to sign, it’s usually okay to write notes. Deaf students at university usually have high competence in English, but be aware that Deaf people you meet elsewhere may not have high literacy skills, so do not always write in standard English. In such instances, try to be understanding, patient, and explore other ways to communicate, such as with mimes and gestures.

If a Deaf person can hear and lipread well enough to have one-on-one conversations remember that face-to-face communication is important. Deaf people listen with their eyes, and sometimes backup speech comprehension with lip-reading (although pure lip reading is actually extremely difficult). If you react to environmental sounds and break eye contact (for example turning around if someone knocks on a door) it is analogous to cutting someone off mid-sentence. Focus on enunciation and projection rather than slowing down your speech and shouting.

Keep in mind too that you may be taken aback by the way a Deaf person speaks. It sometimes sounds different and can be harder to understand. But do not judge the person by their speech—if you assume a Deaf person is stupid because they talk differently this will be picked up, and many a business has lost Deaf customers forever because of such an attitude.

If you have a Deaf person in your class or tutorial, be mindful of including them—they’re here to learn just as you are. Talk one at a time. Get eye contact before talking. If you want to get a Deaf person’s attention, tap them on the shoulder or wave your hand in their eyeline. If a Deaf person is talking to someone else, don’t jump in and talk to the hearing person and make them distracted.

When a Deaf person is using an interpreter, always address the Deaf person directly. Do not ask the interpreter “Can you ask him/her…”; rather, ask the person themselves. This may feel weird because the Deaf person will be looking at the interpreter, yet you should still maintain eye contact with the Deaf person.

If you make the effort, most Deaf people take notice and really appreciate it. They also take notice if you don’t bother with the effort. If you do not understand something, pause and ask for clarification; don’t nod and smile like an idiot. Likewise if a Deaf person asks for clarification, don’t shrug it off saying “it’s not important”; this is basically saying “you’re not important enough for the effort”. Asking questions is fine: it shows you’re trying. It’s always wise for your work to have a supply of pens and paper on hand, and even an NZSL dictionary if possible. Talk to your boss about options to increase satisfaction of your Deaf customers.

Finally, please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of Deaf cultural norms, but rather a beginner’s guideline to interacting with Deaf people. If you want to improve your relations with Deaf people, start with learning some basic sign language, and increase your awareness of Deaf culture. Learning simple signs like “nice to meet you”, “thank you”, and the alphabet tends to be appreciated. Or try learning “sorry, I don’t know sign language”. Signing what little you know, imperfect though it may be, shows you care.

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