Disability rights

History of the New Zealand Sign Language Act


In the past, the use of New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) by deaf people was actively prohibited in New Zealand. This likely resulted from long standing misconceptions that sign languages are not real languages and are inferior to spoken languages. There was also a perception that deaf people were better off using an oral method of communication, such as being required to speak and lip read instead of using NZSL.

Modern linguistic research confirms that sign languages are real languages. Lip reading is a very difficult method of communication and involves a lot of guesswork. Accordingly, it is not a sufficient substitute for NZSL.

English is a second language for many Deaf people. Access to education is still very poor for deaf people and this results in low literacy levels in written and spoken English. By the use of NZSL, however, Deaf people are able to better access other languages, including English and Maori, resulting in improved literacy.

Acknowledgement of NZSL as a real language equal to that of spoken languages is very poor, and this results in injustices. For example, Deaf people reported being denied the use of interpreters in court proceedings and facing disorderly conduct charges where their use of NZSL was misinterpreted as aggressive behaviour. In medical settings, risks of misdiagnosis and lack of informed consent are very high without the use of qualified NZSL interpreters.


May to June 2003 - Consultation on a bill

The Office for Disability Issues carried out consultation meetings with the Deaf community in five main centres. The outcome of these meetings was to get an appreciation of the need and priorities for the NZSL Bill. Three key themes emerged:

  • Low awareness of Deaf people within the state sector and wider society.
  • Poor access to government services, and large discrepancies between the ways in which Deaf people and government agencies perceive the accessibility of government services for Deaf people.
  • Inadequate funding and development of sign language interpreter services.

The findings from this consultation were used in drafting proposals for the Bill.

October 2003 - A new bill agreed by government

The Government formally agreed for a bill to be developed that will give recognition of NZSL as an official language in New Zealand.

December 2003 - Consultation on the bill and further work

The Office for Disability Issues organised community meetings with the Deaf community in Auckland, Palmerston North, Wellington and Christchurch, including a Maori-Deaf meeting in Auckland. Meetings were also held with key stakeholders in the Deaf community around further work to be undertaken on NZSL interpreters and removing language barriers in education, health, employment, and public broadcasting.

April 2004 - Introduction of the NZSL Bill

On 7 April 2004, the NZSL Bill was introduced to Parliament.

June 2004 - First Reading of the NZSL Bill

The first reading of the NZSL Bill was held at Parliament on Tuesday 22 June 2004. Over 60 Deaf people and hearing supporters travelled from around the country to watch the debate.

The Office of the Clerk at Parliament, with the support of the Office for Disability Issues, organised sign language interpreters to be present during the debate so it would be accessible by Deaf people. The debate was also broadcast live over the internet, so Deaf people in other centres could watch. Over 200 people are estimated to have watched the debate in this way.

It was only the second time sign language interpreters had been present in Parliament, and the first time during a debate on legislation. Large TV screens were placed in the public gallery to enable better viewing of the interpreters.