NAISA a watershed moment for Deaf Indigenous communities

25 June 2019

The world’s biggest gathering of Indigenous studies experts in the Waikato this week will also provide a unique opportunity to Deaf communities.

The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association is being held at the University of Waikato/Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato Hamilton campus from 26-29 June 2019.

For what may be the first time, Māori deaf and other Indigenous peoples will be seen in the centre of the  international Indigenous community. A team from Wordsworth Interpreters will be signing for presenters at the conference. Wordsworth Interpreting Manager Shannon McKenzie says Deaf Indigenous communities are doubly marginalized and NAISA is the first time that their issues will be brought to light in international and academic spheres.

Sign languages are referred to as 3-dimensional languages, where as spoken languages as seen as linear. That’s why you can’t write sign language down, and why you can sign things which defy spoken language,  like direction, and speed. Signing is neither English, Māori or any other traditional spoken language.

A whole team of interpreters will be required for the NAISA Conference, which runs all day long each day and is almost an epic in terms of the large number of presenters. But trilingual interpreters are nearly as rare as hen’s teeth. Shannon McKenzie says it highlights how Deaf Māori are twice marginalised and are often simply unable to be seen or represented on the national and international stages, in Indigenous and other contexts.

Ms McKenzie says Māori deaf have never had interpretation at a hearing Indigenous event, like NAISA.  “They don’t have access to Indigenous issues and politics. Most Māori Deaf can’t read about it, as they often come from a relatively uneducated and unprivileged positions. They are often brought up in schools where they are refused sign language, and told to lip read Enlish - so their English can be poor.  There are high levels of poverty in the Deaf community because there are a lack of employment options. So NAISA is a huge opportunity for Māori Deaf to understand what is happening to them.”

Rodney Adams is from the University of Newcastle, where he lectures in Auslan and Deaf Studies. He is Koori and Deaf, and presenting is at NAISA on the revitalisation of Indigenous sign languages. He’s also to thank for for providing the interpreting service.  Mr Adams says the provision of sign language interpreters is crucial for him to access information presented at conferences for his own professional development. He says the cost is covered by the NDIS which is anl Australian initiative to improve access for deaf people. “If it wasn't for this scheme I wouldn't be attending conferences like this and presenting papers.”

For the first time last year, the UN declared the September 23 as the International Day of Sign Languages, and Mr Adams says it has brought much overdue recognition to the importance of the role of Sign Languages in the lives of deaf and hard of hearing people. “This year is also the International Year of Indigenous Languages so complementing the two is needed to revive the importance of Indigenous deaf and hard of hearing people in our communities and the value they bring by their knowledge and use of Indigenous Sign Languages that enhances and complements our culture, diversity and way of life.”

Wordsworth Interpretting’s Shannon McKenzie reiterates that the act of providing sign language interpreters at the event if a watershed. “Visibility is important for Deaf and Indigenous peoples, but doubly so for those who are marginalized as both groups.”

NAISA is the largest and most important Indigenous Studies Association in the world. The University of Waikato joins some of the most prominent international universities which have also hosted NAISA, such as the University of British Columbia and UCLA .

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