2. Important context

This section sets out important context about:

  • The Deaf community
  • Deaf culture
  • New Zealand Sign Language

The Deaf community

Many Deaf people in New Zealand identify as members of a distinct linguistic and cultural group, who use NZSL as their first or preferred language. Whether a Deaf person identifies with the Deaf community is a personal choice.

The NZSL Act defines the “Deaf community” as the distinct linguistic and cultural group of people who are Deaf and who use NZSL as their first or preferred language, and people who are Deaf and who identify with that group.

The NZSL Act does not define the term “Deaf”. As at the 2018 Census, 7,647 people were unable to hear at all, and 55,221 people had a lot of difficulty hearing.[1]

The Deaf community can include people of varying degrees of hearing loss, as well as family members of Deaf people and sign language interpreters.

As with any community, the Deaf community has different groups of people who experience life in different ways – for example, young and old, rural and urban, Māori and Pacific Deaf, Deaf immigrants and refugees, Deaf people of differing sexual orientations and gender identities, Deaf people with disabilities, and Children of Deaf Adults (sometimes referred to as “CODAs”).

Deaf culture

Like any group of people who share a common language and similar life experiences, Deaf people have their own culture. This includes beliefs, attitudes, history, norms, values, literary traditions, and art.

Deaf culture is fundamentally about valuing and celebrating Deafhood.[2] Members of the Deaf community share a strong connection. Values include participation in the community, sharing resources, and providing mutual support and assistance.

Deaf spaces – that is, safe spaces where Deaf people do not have to try so hard to communicate, such as Deaf clubs, community events or schools – are important, as is visual information and NZSL.

New Zealand Sign Language

NZSL is the language used by the New Zealand Deaf community, and is an integral part of Deaf culture.

There are approximately 23,000 people in New Zealand who use NZSL.[3]  This includes hearing parents who use NZSL to communicate with their Deaf children. 

NZSL is not a visual expression of the English language. It is very different from English, both because it is a visual-gestural language, and in its grammar and syntax.

NZSL is a separate language in its own right, and the preferred way for many Deaf people to fully express themselves. It is essential to effective communication with the Deaf community.

Most Deaf NZSL users have been Deaf since infancy. Delayed access to a fully visual language like NZSL can result in language deprivation. That deprivation can have far-reaching developmental and educational impacts.[4] As a result, written English is inaccessible to many Deaf people, and is not an adequate substitute for NZSL.[5]


[1] Census 2018, 2018 Census totals by topic – national highlights – Table 1, Stats New Zealand.

[2] Unlike ‘Deafness’, which defines people by reference to their hearing loss, ‘Deafhood’ conveys an affirmative and positive acceptance of being deaf. 

[3] Census 2018, 2018 Census totals by topic – national highlights – Table 14, Stats New Zealand.

[4] Joanne Witko, Pauline Boyles, Kirsten Smiler and Rachel McKee “Deaf New Zealand Sign Language users’ access to healthcare” NZMJ 1 December 2017, Vol 130 No 1466 at 53.

[5] See “A Era in the Right to Sign” (Human Rights Commission, 2013): “There is little New Zealand data about the comparative achievement levels of deaf children. However, research in New Zealand and other countries has identified that many deaf children leave school with poor levels of achievement and a lower than average written language literacy age”. See also “Scoping support for New Zealand Sign Language users accessing the curriculum. Part II: A New Zealand Overview” (Ministry of Education, 2010): “Education levels are much lower than would be expected for a group of children and adults largely without cognitive impairment, although precise data on educational achievement is difficult to obtain”.