TODAY |

'Disheartening' lack of trilingual interpreters for Māori deaf

As Aotearoa gets ready to celebrate Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori, those who work with Māori Deaf are “disheartened” by the failure to train more trilingual translators.

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Stephanie Awheto is fluent in all three of New Zealand’s official languages. Source: Q+A

Stephanie Awheto is one of the few people in New Zealand who are fluent in all three official languages. She told Q+A that “for any Māori to know who they are, to have a sense of belonging, is really important, and that’s no difference for Māori deaf”.

She was one of the people who helped create and modify signs to reflect Te Ao Māori. Initially it was during casual conversations over a cup of tea in her kitchen, as she tried to answer her friend Patrick Wikiriwhi Thompson’s questions about what was being said on the marae ātea.

During those chats, and the ones that followed, they helped devise the signs that more accurately reflected Te Ao Māori. For example the sign for “hangi” changed from being one that took its action from the English word “hang” and instead illustrated the way the kai was cooked in the ground.

Hearing impairment is higher in Māori communities than in the non-Māori population. In the 1960s that was caused by rubella, while these days glue ear is having an disproportionate effect on Māori.

She says that while there has been progress in getting more reo on radio and television, giving all Kiwis a window into Te Ao Māori, that momentum hasn’t been mirrored for Māori deaf. This shuts them out of information and community. “It feels like being in a country without a passport,” Awheto said.

New Zealanders are becoming more used to sign language as the translators are a key part of the 1pm Covid briefings. “It’s been wonderful, the exposure’s been great, it’s just … I’m waiting for the benefits to trickle down to our Māori deaf community though.”

Four years ago the New Zealand Sign Language Board’s strategy committed to training more trilingual interpreters, to improve access for Māori deaf, but there has been a lack of action from the board, from the Government, and from other groups who work with the Māori deaf community, a situation Awheto describes as “disheartening”.