'Very frustrating' — Sign language interpreters in short supply outside NZ's main centres

Deaf Kiwis outside of our main centres feel left out and isolated, with a lack of qualified sign language interpreters to call on in their area.

Your playlist will load after this ad

It’s New Zealand Sign Language Week, and the deaf community is hoping more awareness will lead to change. Source: 1 NEWS

Chanelle Waite, a mum of three based in Stratford, says she struggles to access interpreters from out of town when she needs one.

"It all depends on the time, the day, the date, travel and what not," she told 1 NEWS.

"I miss out on lots of information on what's going on. It makes me feel left out. There's a lot of barriers in the way."

Merge NZ chief executive Victoria Lessing, who's also deaf, says she's in touch with a number of those in the deaf community across the country who feel the same.

"Deaf people have to find a way, through gestures or writing, but really it's very frustrating because they would like to have an interpreter.

"It's easier, it's quicker, it's a more efficient way of communicating and it's on an equal basis to hearing people," she said.

The main way to access interpreters is through iSign, run by Deaf Aotearoa.

The organisation's chief executive, Lachlan Keating, said, "Smaller cities and large towns like New Plymouth, Whanganui, Invercargill, Gisborne, Whakatane, Whangarei etc may not have a qualified interpreter based locally, or may have unqualified communicators living locally.

"When deaf people need interpreters in these places often there can be a delay of a day or two, which might be OK for some situations, but in the event of a medical emergency, job interview, disciplinary matter, police matter, etc, there is a risk that the meeting cannot go ahead or if it does go ahead the deaf person will not be able to fully participate in the meeting due to there being no interpreter."

Keating said many interpreters are reluctant to move out of main centres permanently, with concerns a smaller deaf community will mean there's not enough work.

Lessing said, "We need to set up some training for sign language interpreters to be able to fill those gaps, which means we need to be able to set up sign language schools in those different areas, all over New Zealand.

"I think the first step is we need funding for those who're interested who want to become sign language interpreters to be able to go to sign language classes, and then they can to the sign language interpreter course."

Another contributing challenge is a shortage of tutors.

Deaf Aotearoa says those who become tutors are often deaf people.

"We need more people for both, sign language teachers, we need to grow that area and that would help the interpreters to become qualified as well. It's creating that balance that's crucial," Lessing said.

If there were qualified interpreters in Taranaki, Waite said, "it would make my life a lot easier and more involved in every day things".

The Health Ministry's keeping the importance of interpreters in mind, in its rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations.

In a statement, a spokesperson said district health boards don't have interpreters on site all the time, but "when deaf people are contacted by their health provider to book their Covid-19 vaccination, they will be asked about their support needs".

"If they require a New Zealand Sign Language interpreter, they will be scheduled for their vaccination at a time that best suits them and also when this support is in place to ensure a seamless experience.

"If they get vaccinated by a community-based health service, such as their GP, deaf people will have the option of booking an NZSL interpreter through iSign (Deaf Aotearoa) or using the video relay service or other support. Services booked through iSign will be funded through the ministry’s contract with Deaf Aotearoa."

Christchurch hospital worker Carolyn Berry had an interpreter present for her second jab today.

"There's so many questions that you're asked, and it's much easier, much clearer when you have an interpreter with you," she said.

"If you don't have an interpreter, then you just don't get the information."

It's hoped the lack of qualified interpreters in our smaller towns doesn't stop those like Chanelle accessing the support.