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Diana Isaac village heralds New Zealand Sign Language Week

Written by Alan Wood
on May 12, 2023

Residents and staff at Diana Isaac village have acknowledged New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) Week, putting their hands up for some learning-to-sign basics.

Many in Ryman Healthcare’s Mairehau, Christchurch village are familiar with the challenges of hearing loss, and here they tell about how signing emerged in this country.

Townhouse resident Mary Cunningham, remembers both the tough times and triumphs within her family where her brother had to battle being deaf from the age of two, many decades ago.

Activities & Lifestyle Coordinator Liz Robson nowadays has a eight-year-old daughter Zoe who has hearing loss and is able to sign. Liz was just one of the team members at Diana Isaac who has helped acknowledge NZSL Week, through events and seeking better communication skills.

Liz and the activities team, supported by Village Manager Steve Wakeman, helped organise a fine dining event in the village, where residents were given the challenge of learning a particular sign and teaching it to others sitting around the table.

Liz and the activities team, supported by Village Manager Steve Wakeman, helped organise a fine dining event in the village, where residents were given the challenge of learning a particular sign and teaching it to others sitting around the table.

Liz was also behind a sign language ‘taster’ class at the start of the week, and she plans for Zoe and her classmates from the Ko Taku Reo NZSL satellite class to come into Diana Isaac to both sing songs and sign to the residents at the same time.

Resident Mary Cunningham (nee Shekleton) and her elder brother Robert were born in Pahiatua, where their father was the manager of the nearby Balfour Estate. But the Shekleton family soon enough moved to Feilding and then to Christchurch.

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Her brother was born in 1937 two-and-a-half years before she was, but when the normally bubbly boy, after a bout of meningitis, quietened down, her mother and father tried to find out why.

Eventually a trip to Wellington enabled them to consult with a specialist, who told them young Robert (only age two) was profoundly deaf.

The move to a flat in Sumner, Christchurch enabled Robert to attend the Sumner School for the Deaf. Robert, who died aged 76, was a bright child and flourished in the school, Mary remembers. He learned despite signing not being allowed, with lip reading the main form of communication encouraged. “Signing wasn’t accepted at all, the whole time he was there,” Mary says. His lip reading skills were honed by an talented English woman Mrs Comerford.

But the children did naturally sign, though a nationwide language had yet to emerge, Mary adds.

The children had a definite sign for Robert (Bob) and would welcome with the signal when he arrived at school. The children also had their signals out in the playground, but definitely could not show any form of signing while the adult teachers were around.

Time passed and Mary married Douglas. The couple moving to Amberley to farm and two bring up two children – Jane (now living in Queenstown) and Joe (in Christchurch).

After leaving school Robert took up a job at J Mercer & Sons, then located near the Christchurch Railway Station and Moorhouse Avenue. He worked on the fabrication of steel products, for example making sinks and hand basins, and lived in Rochdale Street where he had a very supportive Fendalton community.

“(He had a great career) because he was never interrupted. He got more work done than anyone else in the whole building... he just concentrated on his job. He talked at morning tea, and signed to the men,” Mary says.

He had strong relationships within the deaf community and, for example, would attend dances and social occasions, as well as being a strong tennis player at the Elmwood club.

While he was a talented lip reader, Robert, when in a group of deaf friends, would tend to remain silent and use signing as did the others, Mary says. This started at an early age, and continued. “When he went out for play, in morning and afternoon, they used to go like this (signing) all the time. They had their own signs.”

Robert also had a great relationship with her own children, his niece and nephew, and would often visit them in Amberley, she adds. In terms of hobbies, Robert was a great craftsman, having inherited many tools from their father.

Liz Robson says she gave residents a talk on how New Zealand Sign Language emerged to be fully formed, as part of the week. “(About) 30 residents attended the NZSL beginners class and many have expressed interest in continuing to learn. We had 60+ residents at fine dining yesterday who had the opportunity to try using some sign language with their table at dinner time... The residents had a lot of fun practising some NZSL together.”

T-Shirts were sold in the village, with some of the sale proceeds going to the organisation Deaf Aotearoa/Tāngata Turi. Liz says some of her interest in the week has been driven by her own hearing impairment and that of her daughter Zoe. She started signing seven years ago.

“Zoe is profoundly deaf and attends a mainstream school with support from the Ministry of Education and New Zealand Sign Language in schools. She also attends the Ko Taku Reo satellite class one day every week,” Liz says.

NZSL became an official language in 2006. It is becoming much more widely celebrated in Aotearoa with NZSL week promoting the use of sign language ever year, she adds. One estimate from 2021 has more than 20,000 Kiwis signing on a daily basis.

NZSL is unique to New Zealand but shares the same alphabet as British Sign Language and Australian Sign Language. “Our language is central to our identity because it allows us to communicate with other people,” Liz says in a presentation to Diana Isaac residents.

About Ryman Healthcare:

Ryman was founded in 1984 and has become one of New Zealand’s largest listed companies. The company owns and operates 45 retirement villages in New Zealand and Australia which are home to more than 13,900 residents and the company employs 6,800 team members.

Media advisory: For further information, photos, interviews or comment please contact Group Corporate Affairs Manager Silke Marsh on +64 27 294 3609 or Communications Advisor Maryvonne Gray on 027 552 0767.

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