NZSL Act 2006 History

This section has a brief history of what happened during the development of the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006.

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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, which led to Deaf people being required to speak and lip read instead of using NZSL.

Modern linguistic research confirms that sign languages are real languages. Solely 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 often problematic for Deaf people, and this results in low literacy levels in written and spoken English. Through the use of NZSL, however, Deaf people are able to better access other languages, including English and Māori, resulting in improved literacy.

Prior to the NZSL Act, there was no legal acknowledgement of NZSL as a real language equal to that of spoken languages. This resulted in injustices such as Deaf people 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 former Office for Disability Issues (now a part of Whaikaha - Ministry of Disabled People) 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 Māori-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.

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 for 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. The Minister for Disability Issues, Hon Ruth Dyson, spoke first and was followed by speakers from each political party. When it came to the vote, all parties approved the Bill being referred to the Justice and Electoral Committee for consideration. 

July 2004 to July 2005 - Justice and Electoral Committee considers the NZSL Bill

Parliament's Justice and Electoral Committee called for submissions on the NZSL Bill, with the deadline of 27 August 2004. Deaf people were given the option of making a submission in NZSL on video tape. The Select Committee agreed to ensure NZSL interpreters would be available if Deaf people wished to also meet with the Select Committee to make an oral submission.

Seven video clips in NZSL were added to the Office’s website, as a step towards making information more accessible to Deaf people. These video clips, produced by the Office with assistance from the Deaf Association, summarise key information on, the Minister for Disability Issues, the Office for Disability Issues, processes of legislation at Parliament, the content of the NZSL Bill and how to make a submission.

Additionally, to help disabled people learn how to be involved and participate in the Parliamentary process of legislation, IHC Advocacy, the Office for Disability Issues and the Office of the Clerk worked together to produce an Easy to Read and a Pictorial translation of “Making a Submission to a Parliamentary Select Committee”. These translations use plain language and pictures to describe what Select Committees do and how to make a submission on a bill. These documents were intended to be of particular use for Deaf people interested in making a submission on the NZSL Bill.

On 13 October, in Wellington, the Justice and Electoral Select Committee held its first meeting with people that sent a submission on the NZSL Bill and who asked to appear in person before them (that is to make an oral submission). A further meeting was held in Auckland on 24 November.

The final meeting for face-to-face submissions on the NZSL Bill to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee was held (via video conference) in Wellington on 9 February 2005. The Select Committee then began its consideration of the submissions and its recommendations on the Bill.

On 18 July 2005, the NZSL Bill reached another milestone in its passage through Parliament, with the Justice and Electoral Select Committee tabling its report on the Bill. The main recommendation in the report proposes a new clause to ensure the Bill is reviewed after 3 years. The Select Committee received 195 submissions, including six submissions on video tape recording 104 people signing their comments in NZSL. The Committee met with 26 submitters in Auckland, Wellington, and by video-conference. Submissions expressed overwhelming support for the Bill, and there were no submissions in opposition.

February 2006 - Second Reading of the NZSL Bill

On 23 February 2006, the second reading of the NZSL Bill was held in Parliament, Wellington. NZSL interpreters were present to interpret the debate for Deaf people present in the gallery, and for broadcast live over the internet. The Bill was passed (119 votes in favour to 2 against) for referral to the next Parliamentary stage.

April 2006 - Third Reading of the NZSL Bill

On 6 April 2006, the Third Reading of the NZSL Bill was held in Parliament, Wellington. NZSL interpreters were again present during the debate, which was broadcast live over the internet. After the third reading, the Minister for Disability Issues, Hon Ruth Dyson, hosted a party at the Beehive for the Deaf community to celebrate NZSL becoming an official language.

April 2006 - Royal Assent of the NZSL Act

On 10 April 2006, the Governor-General gave the Royal Assent to the Bill, which made the New Zealand Sign Language Act official legislation.

The signing happened in the presence of the Minister for Disability Issues, government officials, and leaders of the Deaf community.