4. Giving effect to the guiding principles

This section provides some practical guidance for departments on how to give effect to the guiding principles.

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Leadership and culture

Chief executives and senior leaders should lead by example in promoting awareness and use of NZSL as an official language of New Zealand, and ensuring the accessibility of departmental services to Deaf people and the Deaf community. They should actively work together to promote a Deaf-friendly culture within the department. This could involve:

  • Clear and regular communication to external audiences about the department’s commitment to using NZSL and ensuring accessible services, including the availability of NZSL interpreters.
  • Clear and regular communication to staff about the department’s commitment to using NZSL and ensuring accessible services.
  • Appointing a senior leader with responsibility for implementing the department’s commitment to using NZSL and ensuring accessible services.
  • Allocating adequate resources for NZSL translation and interpreting services to ensure that departmental services are accessible to Deaf people and important information is available in NZSL.
  • Establishing and maintaining relationships with the Deaf community and Deaf representative organisations.
  • Establishing and maintaining comprehensive and up-to-date policies on how the department will implement its obligations under the NZSL Act, including by providing NZSL interpreting services and translating information into NZSL (see Policies);
  • Building departmental capacity and capability to give effect to the principles of the NZSL Act, including through provision of regular training to staff and appointing Deaf members of staff (see Capacity and capability);
  • Ongoing monitoring of the department’s efforts to comply, so far as reasonably practicable, with the principles of the NZSL Act (see Monitoring).

 “It’s attitude. Be open-minded. No more excuses. This should be part of the culture, and it filters from the top” – Deaf NZSL user

Consulting with the Deaf community

Compliance with the NZSL Act requires (so far as reasonably practicable) departments to consult with the Deaf community on matters relating to NZSL. As a matter of good practice, departments should also consult the Deaf community on any matters that will impact on them as citizens or residents, including their ability to access services.

Consultation with the Deaf community cannot rely solely on communications in written English. As discussed above, written English is inaccessible to many Deaf people, and is not  an adequate substitute for NZSL (see Important context – New Zealand Sign Language).

As a minimum, therefore, consultation with the Deaf community should involve:

  • Communications about the purpose of the consultation in NZSL, so that Deaf people can participate on an informed basis;
  • Enabling Deaf people to participate in the consultation process in NZSL (which may include the ability to make video submissions in NZSL); and
  • Communications about the outcome of the consultation process in NZSL, so that Deaf people can understand how their input was considered.

Face to face communication as part of consultation

NZSL is a visual language, and so it makes sense that there is a strong preference for face-to-face (kanohi ki te kanohi) communication when conducting consultation with the Deaf community. Face-to-face usually means in-person, but it could also mean online, through a video conferencing platform. In the alternative, departments could offer to receive video submissions in NZSL, which can then be translated.

"Some consultations are faceless. They put out a bit of information in English and expect the Deaf community to provide feedback on it. We need people to come out to our communities – to clarify and answer questions in our language. Deaf culture places a really high value on face to face communication” – Deaf NZSL user

Targeted communication for consultation

Consultation that is targeted to Deaf people, rather than an add-on to general consultation processes, may be more effective.

“I’ve been involved in general consultations where NZSL interpreters were provided, but they were still hearing dominated. The examples and experiences given by hearing attendees were irrelevant to the Deaf attendees. It is very difficult to interrupt a conversation people are having orally. The hearing group communicated more quickly. We needed more time. We needed space for us” – Deaf NZSL user

Planning and preparation for consultation

Consultation with the Deaf community should be planned – not an afterthought. Early involvement of Deaf people in the planning and preparation for consultation will help to ensure that the consultation process, and the information and examples that are provided in NZSL, are relatable, effective and fit for purpose.

Deaf participants should be given advance information (in NZSL) about the purpose of the consultation, and the questions that will be asked, so they can think and prepare beforehand.

NZSL interpreters also need to be booked well in advance to ensure availability and adequate time to prepare (see Interpreting – Planning and preparation).

The time to do all of this needs to be built into the consultation process.

“A good consultation process would involve skilled Deaf people from the beginning advising the government department on how the consultation can be run in a Deaf cultural and appropriate manner. This would ensure that the planning is Deaf/NZSL friendly from the beginning rather than us having to try and spin some magic … at the end …” – Deaf NZSL user

Deaf facilitators for consultations

Appointing a Deaf facilitator to lead the consultation process can support effective communication, and help to create a safe space for Deaf participants to freely express their views.

A Deaf facilitator can conduct the consultation and report back to the Department. Officials can also take part in the consultation process as participant observers, with the assistance of NZSL interpreters. That way information can go both ways, and officials can answer any questions the other participants may have.

 “[Consultation] sessions should absolutely be run or co-run with a skilled Deaf person to ensure the process is appropriate and the audience comfortable to give the best feedback they can” – Deaf NZSL user

Logistics of consultations

Think carefully about the timing and location of consultation processes. A poor choice of time (for example, in the middle of a work day, when people may be busy or have to take leave) can be a barrier to effective participation for many. So too a poor choice of location. Consultation in a “Deaf space” will be appreciated. A “Deaf space” is somewhere comfortable and familiar to Deaf people – for example, local Deaf clubs.


“Interpretation” is defined in the NZSL Act as the expression in NZSL of words spoken in English and/or te reo Māori, and the oral expression in English and/or te reo Māori of messages expressed in NZSL.[2] It therefore enables Deaf people to understand information communicated orally by providing that information in NZSL.

Compliance with the NZSL Act requires departments (so far as reasonably practicable) to provide accessible services and information to the Deaf community.[3] This means booking and paying for NZSL interpreting services whenever a meeting is required with a Deaf person. Trilingual interpreters (English/te reo Māori/NZSL) will be required if the spoken language is te reo Māori.

Departments should establish and maintain comprehensive and up-to-date policies on providing NZSL interpreters (see Policies), and ensure that staff are aware of those policies (See Capacity and capability).

Language Assistance Services (LAS)

LAS is run by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) with the aim of establishing a comprehensive framework for the delivery of high quality, consistent and coordinated language assistance services across Government. It includes a new national model for agencies to access face-to-face interpreting services, including NZSL interpreting services. Visit www.mbie.govt.nz external for more information.

Effective communication with Deaf people: A guide to working with New Zealand Sign Language interpreters

Departments should refer to this guide by the Office for Disability Issues for detailed information on working with NZSL interpreters, including information on what they do; how to know they are professionally competent; legal requirements for providing interpreters; when and how to book interpreters; and who pays.

Choice of interpreters

Departments should always start by asking the Deaf person if they have particular requirements or preferences for a NZSL interpreter. Some reasons for preferring a particular interpreter include:

  • The gender of the interpreter;
  • The experience and knowledge of the interpreter (e.g. medical or legal);
  • Consistency (e.g. if the same interpreter has handled previous similar assignments);
  • The Deaf person’s desire to control who has access to their personal information (see What about privacy below); and
  • Language repertoire (e.g. an interpreter who uses clear English lip patterns in combination with NZSL, or is familiar with older or younger people’s signing style).

If it is not reasonably practicable to meet the Deaf person’s preferences, they should be informed as soon as possible and appropriate alternatives discussed.

Qualified NZSL interpreters

Departments should generally only use professional NZSL interpreters. Professional NZSL interpreters belong to the Sign Language Interpreters Association (SLIANZ) and/or the New Zealand Society of Translators and Interpreters (NZSTI), and follow those organisations’ Code of Ethics. The guide to Effective communication with Deaf people has more detail on how to know if an interpreter is professionally competent.

Departments should avoid using unqualified people as interpreters – for example, a staff member, or friend or family member of the Deaf person. While a friend or family member can provide support, they should not be the sole or primary source of interpreting services. They do not have to abide by the same ethical standards (like confidentiality) as professional interpreters. There is also no way of knowing whether an unqualified person is fluent enough to enable effective communication. This is particularly risky in situations where a clear understanding is critical – for example, where the discussion feeds into a decision affecting the rights or entitlements of the Deaf person. It also does not respect the Deaf person’s right to privacy (for more on privacy see below).

Using a qualified NZSL interpreter usually means booking an interpreter through a NZSL interpreting service (visit www.mbie.govt.nz external for more information about the new national model for agencies to access face-to-face interpreting services).

Some departments or government agencies may have qualified NZSL interpreters on staff. This is great in order to ensure a base level of access to NZSL interpreting services, but it is still important to respect the Deaf person’s right to choose an interpreter independent of the department or government agency (see Choice above).

Where the subject matter is very technical or specialised (such as health or legal interpreting), departments should work with booking agencies to ensure the right interpreter is booked, and that they are appropriately prepared for the job.

The role of interpreters

Interpreters facilitate communication between Deaf and hearing people by interpreting between NZSL and spoken language.

The interpreter’s role is to convey meaning between spoken and signed language, not to become involved in the interpreted event in a substantive way. The interpreter will not offer advice or opinions on the situation, other than to assist participants to work effectively with the interpreter when necessary.

Staff should face toward and speak directly to the Deaf person they are meeting with – not the NZSL interpreter.

The interpreter will keep the interpreted interaction confidential.

 [There is a] lack of knowledge of the NZSL interpreter’s role: agency staff often say to the interpreter ‘Please tell him/her [the Deaf person]…’ or ask ‘What do you [interpreter] think?’ Agencies [need] to understand the professional role of interpreters and their code of conduct and ethics" – Deaf NZSL user

Planning and preparation for interpreters

NZSL interpreters should be booked well in advance. This is particularly true for trilingual interpreters (English/te reo Māori/NZSL) because there are fewer of them. If a trilingual interpreter is not available, it may be possible to use a team to interpret between English, te reo Māori and NZSL. If left to the last minute, an interpreter may be unavailable, and the Deaf person may not get their choice of interpreter, or any interpreter at all.

Booking in advance is also important to ensure adequate time for the interpreter to prepare for the meeting. This involves briefing the interpreter on the purpose of the meeting, the names and roles of attendees, the agenda and any other relevant documentation (for example, speech notes, handouts or a copy of a copy of presentation slides). This helps the interpreter to understand the context of the meeting, and any specialised language or terms used which may not be common in NZSL or known by the Deaf person.

A meeting involving NZSL interpreters may take a bit longer, and this should be factored in when setting the appointment. If a meeting or event lasts more than one hour, then at least two interpreters will be required. If only one interpreter is working, allow 5 to 10 minutes of rest break for each 30 to 45 minutes of interpreting.

Deaf interpreters

Not all NZSL interpreters are hearing people who have learned NZSL. Deaf interpreters are native NZSL users, and have lived experience of Deafness.  Using Deaf interpreters can significantly aid comprehension and communication, and make the experience more interactive for Deaf participants, who can ask questions and have them answered directly. You can find more information about Deaf Interpreting in New Zealand on the ODI website external.

Logistics for interpreting

The Deaf person(s) needs to be able to see the NZSL interpreter clearly. The NZSL interpreter needs to be able to see everyone and hear everything clearly. Often it is helpful if the NZSL interpreter sits next to the person speaking. That way the Deaf person can see the interpreter, as well as the expressions and body language of the person speaking. The Deaf person and/or the NZSL interpreter will be able to advise on the best position.

What about privacy?

The role of NZSL interpreters means they will come into possession of personal information (sometimes sensitive personal information) about the people they are interpreting for.

This isn’t something to be concerned about, provided professional NZSL interpreters are used. Professional NZSL interpreters are subject to a code of ethics requiring them to maintain confidentiality and not to disclose information acquired during the course of their work.

However, it is important to think about where your discussion is taking place. Signed conversations in public places (like an open plan office) can be ‘overheard’ by anyone who knows NZSL. Consider whether it would be more appropriate to meet in a private room.


“Translation” is defined in the NZSL Act as the written expression in English and/or te reo Māori of messages expressed in NZSL and the signed expression in NZSL of words written in English and/or te reo Māori.[4] It therefore enables Deaf people to understand written information by providing that information in NZSL.

Compliance with the NZSL Act requires (so far as reasonably practicable) departments to promote government services and provide information to the public in NZSL.[5] This means translating information about departmental services, and other key information (particularly high stakes information relating to health and safety), into NZSL videos.

Translating information into NZSL videos enables Deaf people to access information independently at a time and place that is convenient to them. Quality NZSL translations, using video, are a valuable way to provide information in an accessible format for Deaf people.

Once the translated information has been published it should be regularly reviewed to ensure that it remains accurate and up-to-date.

Departments should establish and maintain comprehensive and up-to-date policies on translating information into NZSL (see Policies) and ensure that staff are aware of those policies (See Capacity and capability).

Accessibility guidance and advice

Departments should see MSD’s website external for advice and guidance on making information accessible. This includes the Accessibility Guide external, which provides guidelines for the creation of accessible material, including the provision of information in alternate formats for Deaf people, like translating the information into NZSL on video, and adding closed (can be turned on) or open (permanently on) captions to videos.  MSD’s Accessibility Team can also provide advice on translating content into alternate formats, including NZSL.

Planning and preparation for translating

Deciding what information should be translated into NZSL requires careful planning.

Departments should involve members of the Deaf community in the planning process – asking what they would like to see translated into English, and sense-checking the resources as they are developed.

The following information should be considered for translation into NZSL:

  • Information to support the everyday life and needs of the Deaf community;
  • Forms, correspondence, pamphlets and brochures used by the department to facilitate or promote public services;
  • Information about the department’s functions and responsibilities;
  • The department’s policy for providing NZSL interpreting services;
  • Information about rules used by the department to make decisions about people’s rights and entitlements;
  • Key resources developed by the department for public use;
  • Information about policy development processes that are likely to impact on the everyday life and needs of the Deaf community;
  • Information about particular public consultation processes that are likely to impact on the everyday life and needs of the Deaf community;
  • Information about law or rule changes that are likely to impact on the everyday life and needs of the Deaf community;
  • Information about particular events, especially ’high stakes’ information that will have a significant impact on people’s lives or personal safety;
  • Information about particular inquiries into matters of public interest;
  • Information about complaints and appeal processes; and
  • Key accountability information, like annual reports.

It’s important to think about translation early in the process because it can take time to do it well. Developing the material with translation in mind is more likely to result in a better, more useable, resource. Departments need to schedule adequate time and allocate funding for a translation provider and experienced video producer. Ideally the written information and the NZSL translation of that information would be released at the same time.

Effective translation

A direct translation from written English to NZSL will not be the most effective way of getting a message across. The focus should be on presenting the most important information in NZSL, in the most understandable way. Departments should seek specialist advice on the best way to go about translating information into NZSL (see More help and guidance). Aids to effective translation include:

  • Ensuring the content is targeted to, and relevant for, the Deaf community;
  • Using NZSL grammar without following the grammar of the English text too closely;
  • Having a clear introduction at the start of the video to provide context;
  • Using clear, slow signing with pauses, role shifting,[6] clear lip patterns and facial expressions;
  • Using key text and visual cues on screen to help the audience relate to the information;
  • Providing additional information and explanations to aid understanding;
  • Producing short videos, or breaking longer videos into chapters, so the viewer can digest the information they want at an appropriate pace;
  • Using role-plays and real life examples to make the content more relatable and easier to understand;
  • Providing Deaf-friendly ways to contact the department for more information, such as video email or meeting face to face (see Alternative ways of communicating);
  • Presenting contact details in both NZSL and writing;
  • Adding closed (can be turned on) English captions, so viewers can choose whether to watch the videos with or without captions.
  • Using a plain background for videos, that contrasts clearly with the clothing worn by the presenter and any captions or text.

A team approach, involving the department, the translation provider and Deaf end users, will enable resources to be checked, reviewed and adapted as they are developed, and result in a more effective translation.

Case study: Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care published its terms of reference in NZSL. It also created a range of resources in NZSL external addressing the background to the inquiry, how inquiries work, how Deaf people could share their experiences with the inquiry (including NZSL interpreting services), and what the inquiry would do with the information that was received. The Royal Commission also provided NZSL interpreting services for all livestreamed public hearings. 

Easy to find 

Translating material into NZSL is only the first step. There also needs to be a focus on disseminating translated material.

New NZSL resources should be publicised (for example, through Deaf community social media groups or pages), so that as many members of the Deaf community as possible know they are available. The translation provider used by the Department may have ideas for how to publicise new resources.

All departments should consider creating a webpage that is accessible from their homepage that collates in one place all the information that is available on their websites in NZSL. Using the NZSL logo will help to signpost resources in NZSL. It is also good idea to include a way for Deaf people to submit feedback on NZSL resources and requests for information to be translated into NZSL.

Case study: Wellington health services

 externalCapital and Coast District Health Board (“DHB”) hosts a webpage external on behalf of the Wellington region DHBs that pulls together in one place the information that is available in NZSL or relevant to the Deaf community. Users are invited to contact the DHB if they want more information to be published on the webpage.

Case study: HealthEd

HealthEd.govt.nz external is a website run by the Health Promotion Agency and the Ministry of Health. It contains a searchable catalogue of free health resources. Users can search by language, including NZSL, to find a complete list of health resources in NZSL.

Alternative ways of communicating

There are lots of ways of communicating with the Deaf community and Deaf people. The more alternatives used, the more effective the communication will be.

Many departments will still need to communicate with people in writing. If written communications are simple and clear this will help everyone – not just Deaf people. Where contact details are provided, these should include email and/or text message, as well as phone numbers (along with information on how to use the New Zealand Relay Service (see below)).

A primary method of communication will be through the Department’s website, and video content published in NZSL on that website. Video content that is not in NZSL can be made more accessible for people who are Deaf by adding closed (can be turned on) or open (permanently on) captions. A NZSL translation can also be added to existing videos by adding a “picture in picture”.

Social media platforms can also provide an effective way of communicating with the Deaf community. There are lots of Deaf groups active on Facebook. They may be willing to help get messages out to the Deaf community.

There are also video email applications that enable Deaf people to record and send videos in NZSL just as they would an email.

The New Zealand Relay Service external enables Deaf and hearing people to communicate by phone or video conferencing platform, with the assistance of a NZSL interpreter. Departments should consider setting up a specific phone number for Relay Service users, or prioritising calls from Relay Service users, as long wait times can impact on the availability of NZSL interpreters. This would also ensure that calls are taken by staff trained on how the Relay Service works.

Departments should bear in mind that not all Deaf people have access to technology, so communication alternatives should ideally include some low-tech options too (for example, community meetings).


Departments should develop a policy on how they will implement their obligations under the NZSL Act, including by:

This gives a clear signal to staff about the importance of complying with the NZSL Act, and meeting the accessibility and information needs of the Deaf community, where reasonably practicable.

It also ensures that staff are aware of a Deaf person’s right to access a NZSL interpreter for meetings, and of the need to take responsibility for booking and paying for a NZSL interpreter where reasonably practicable.

Departments should consult the Deaf community when developing or revising these policies. This is precisely the kind of consultation mandated by the NZSL Act.[7] 

Policies should nominate a senior leader with responsibility for implementation, and for ensuring the policies are reviewed and updated on a regular basis.

Departments should consider translating their policies into NZSL and publishing that information on their websites, so that NZSL users know the department’s policy, particularly in relation to providing NZSL interpreting services (see Translating – Planning and preparation).

Case study: MOU between MCDEM and Deaf Aotearoa

An MOU between the Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management (“MCDEM”) and Deaf Aotearoa external addresses a number of the matters discussed above. For example, MCDEM agrees:

  • To use qualified and suitable NZSL interpreters at pre-planned formal MCDEM-led media briefings where important safety information is being communicated verbally to media and the general public.
  • To advocate to camera operators attending such briefings that they frame the NZSL interpreter properly to fully include their hand actions, facial expressions, and upper body.
  • To engage with Deaf Aotearoa when developing or updating any documentation, resources, guidance or projects/initiatives that directly relate to, or is likely to have a significant effect on, the life and safety of Deaf people.
  • To collaborate with Deaf Aotearoa to develop and promote emergency preparedness resources for Deaf people.
  • To promote NZ Sign Language Week on its relevant social media channels.
  • To arrange meetings at least annually between MCDEM and Deaf Aotearoa.
  • To respond to any correspondence from Deaf Aotearoa in a timely, informative and constructive manner.
  • To assume responsibility for payment for NZSL interpreter services for any mutually agreed appointments/engagements between the two parties, whether that be a media briefing or a meeting. 

Capacity and capability

Hand in hand with establishing and maintaining policies, departments should ensure that staff receive regular training on:

  • the NZSL Act;
  • NZSL and Deaf culture;
  • communicating with Deaf people, including how the New Zealand Relay Service works;
  • when and how to book NZSL interpreters;
  • the role of NZSL interpreters; and
  • when and how to consider translating information into NZSL.

It is also important that departmental staff reflect the diversity of New Zealand. Having Deaf people on staff will help to grow institutional knowledge of NZSL and what it means to be Deaf.

This is part of broader public service goals relating to diversity and inclusion. See www.publicservice.govt.nz external for more information about diversity and inclusion in the public service.

Having specialist Deaf cultural advisers or NZSL interpreters on staff may also help departments to comply with their obligations under the NZSL Act. Some government agencies have also established teams or expert advisory groups to assist.

Deaf staff and advisors must be supported by their employers to have influence within the relevant department by ensuring they can access all of the information they need to carry out their role, and making reasonable accommodations, including adequate access to NZSL interpreting services.

Case study: Department of Internal Affairs (“DIA”)

DIA has a small group of staff who can be called on to support staff members to work effectively with Deaf customers. Members of this group periodically run education sessions for customer-facing staff to assist their awareness and understanding of when assistance may be required, as well as a broad understanding of Deaf culture.


As a matter of good practice, departments should undertake regular monitoring and evaluation to assess their level of compliance with the NZSL Act. This may include:

  • monitoring and evaluating demand for, and supply of, NZSL interpreting services, and expenditure on NZSL interpreting services;
  • monitoring and evaluating the volume of NZSL translations, requests for information to be translated into NZSL, and feedback received on NZSL resources;
  • monitoring and evaluating feedback and complaints, to identify instances of inaccessible information and processes and working to resolve the situation.


[1] See s 9(1)(a) NZSL Act.

[2] See s 4 NZSL Act.

[3] See s 9(1)(c) NZSL Act.

[4] See s 4 NZSL Act.

[5] See s 9(1)(b) NZSL Act.

[6] Role shifting is where a signer reports another person’s statements or actions in another context using a range of markers (such as body shifting, gaze shifting, head shifting and head tilting) that imitatively depict the other person in that context.

[7] See s 9(1)(a) NZSL Act: “the Deaf community should be consulted on matters relating to NZSL”.

https://vimeo.com/637688498/d4428364ed external