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University Sign Language classes incredibly popular

Monday, 20 March 2017 12:48pm

sign-language-image
Richard Carlos Torr (left) takes part in the University's first New Zealand Sign Language course, taught by Josje Lelijveld. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

Participants in the University’s first New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) courses left their first classes holding their hands in the sign for “heart” – a great indication of how well the programme has been received.

Disability Information and Support has offered the six-week introductory and full-year courses for the first time this year – partly as a way of raising awareness that NZSL is New Zealand’s third official language.

The classes, which were open to all University staff plus a number of students from the University’s College of Education, offer an introduction to both the language and to Deaf culture.

Disability Information and Support Manager Melissa Lethaby says the popularity of the courses was astounding – they were so inundated with enquiries that there is a waiting list for four more introductory courses this year.

"The response has been great! They left class holding their hands in the sign for heart, they seem to love it! Or they show the sign “thank you” sincerely."

The courses are being taught by Josje Lelijveld – who moved to Dunedin from Christchurch earlier this year specifically to foster Deaf culture in the South.

Profoundly deaf, she is both a Sign Language teacher and an advocate for the Deaf community. In an email interview with the Otago Bulletin Board, she said it was wonderful that the University was so willing to offer these courses.

“The response has been great! They left class holding their hands in the sign for heart, they seem to love it! Or they show the sign “thank you” sincerely. It is very rewarding for me seeing the response as teaching NZSL can be quite exhausting, having the whole class with no sound and paying full visual attention.”

She says it is particularly pleasing that the courses have been opened up to College of Education students, who could make a huge difference in the lives of any Deaf or Hard of Hearing children they teach in the future.

“Those children tend to struggle a lot in following all of the teacher’s instructions. They get exhausted after a class, trying to understand and discriminate all the sounds (like my students after my visual class) and they can become isolated. Most Deaf children are born in hearing families and most of these children are not learning Sign Language.”

The College of Education’s Dr Gill Rutherford, who worked with Disability Information and Support to offer these courses to students, agrees they are vital.

“Teachers play a critical role in educating students about human diversity in general, which includes an understanding of different cultures and languages; we need therefore to ensure that student and registered teachers develop an understanding of Deaf culture and NZSL.

"Teachers play a critical role in educating students about human diversity in general, which includes an understanding of different cultures and languages."

“I believe that universities and teacher education programmes have a responsibility to recognise, question and respond to systemic discrimination, which, in this case, is evident in the historical and present day experiences of Deaf citizens. Having opportunities to learn about Deaf culture and its language is an initial means of addressing this inequity.”

She would like to see Otago include Deaf Studies and NZSL papers in its degree programmes – particularly teacher education and other professional degrees.

“Doing so would demonstrate leadership and commitment to addressing systemic marginalisation of 'minority' groups, which would serve not only members of the latter, but all of us.”

Mrs Lethaby says the six-week course offers beginners an introduction to NZSL. The full-year course is more in depth, and will see participants learn greetings and simple instructions, and also more complex phrases such as expressing likes and dislikes and telling someone about their immediate family/whanau relationships.

“People will also learn basic NZSL grammar, acquire a basic knowledge of Deaf culture and the Deaf community, and develop an awareness of NZSL communication behaviours,” she says.

For participant Richard Carlos Torr the classes are an opportunity to learn some NZSL and more about Deaf culture.

“We already use a few signs with our young children as they can use them to communicate much earlier than speaking, so it will be good to have some more signs to use,” he says.

“I want to be prepared so I can communicate with colleagues who are Deaf, if even at a basic level. The class also covers deaf culture so I can have confidence I’m not being insensitive when I meet a Deaf person.”

Ms Lelijveld says not only are the classes fun and NZSL vitally important – but it can be useful in other situations too – such as “in a very loud environment, from far distances such as across the road, or even under water!”