Five years ago, sign language became an official language of New Zealand  alongside Maori and English. Now, a much anticipated review is under way. Sophie Bond looks at progress.

James Pole has a Bachelor of Commerce degree and would love to complete a Bachelor of Science, but he can't do it alone.

Born deaf, Mr Pole completed his first degree with the help of a sign language interpreter. But finding similar support for a second degree hasn't been easy. "While I was studying, more and more deaf students were beginning university and now they outnumber the interpreters."

He hopes a review of the New Zealand Sign Language Act will lead to more funding, for education in particular. "The Act needs more empowerment over funding, especially from the Government, as it doesn't say anything about what the Government will support."

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Mr Pole, a community relations officer for Deaf Aotearoa, says the act has helped raise the profile of the deaf community in New Zealand and made people aware of their needs. However, he feels several areas need improvement.

"Now, it covers the law, court, etc, but we need to think about where else we need sign language. For example, there are still barriers to accessing information from government departments."

He says another pressing problem in New Zealand is a shortage of interpreters and training centres for interpreters. There's only one, for instance, here in Auckland.

"It's especially difficult for deaf men because, if they have an appointment that requires a male interpreter, there are only three male interpreters compared to 30 females interpreters in the Auckland region."

Last month, the Minister for Disability Issues, Tariana Turia, announced a review of the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006. She hopes to present the findings to Parliament in May during New Zealand Sign Language Week.

Deaf Aotearoa's chief executive, Rachel Noble, says the Act itself was the result of years of lobbying by the deaf community. She says there was a lot of resistance but the Act was finally passed in 2006, with only two MPs voting against it.

Ms Noble beams as she recounts the victory.

"April 6, 2006, was an amazing day. That day validated us as New Zealanders. It said we were allowed to be here, allowed to live. We believe this is the strongest Sign Language Act in the world as it gives equal status with English and Maori.

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"In its present state, the Act has some obligations for the justice system and government departments. However, there are still multiple issues."

She says the act stipulates a review be carried out after April 2009, and the deaf community has pressured the Government for the past year and a half to get to this point.

Ms Noble would like improved access to sign language interpreters and more resources for teaching both children and adults.

"The greatest need is for funding going towards the maintenance of the language and the infrastructure around it. I hope the review will lead to the development of a clear strategy that will allow us to address issues that have been outstanding for too long."

The NZ Sign Language Act

Declares New Zealand Sign Language to be an official language of New Zealand.

  • Provides for the use of sign language in legal proceedings and regulates the competency standards for interpretations.
  • Sets guidelines for government departments in the promotion and use of the language.

Public feedback on the act closes February 28. Public meetings explaining the review are being held around the country. See

for details.