Born deaf, Rachel is all about celebrating diversity and has spent much of her life advocating for equal opportunities for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people.
She is a founder of New Zealand Sign Language Week as we know it now and says its aim is to raise awareness of the language as well as of the Deaf community.
“It’s an opportunity for Deaf people to put out a call to action to advance our human rights as New Zealanders.
“It means validating us as members of society – that we have equitable rights and we can expect to be treated as an equal New Zealander.
“But it’s also about celebrating the diversity that the Deaf community and sign language brings to society.”
Bright and bubbly, Rachel grew up in Hawke’s Bay and attended a school with other Deaf children. At the time however, sign language wasn’t viewed in a positive light.
“At school sign language was banned. We were separated from Deaf adults who used sign language, but naturally because there was a deaf unit, we found places where we could communicate using our own home sign language, knowing that when a teacher came we had to go back to talking orally.”
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Rachel moved to Wellington for high school and has gone on to have a successful teaching career.
She says Aotearoa has progressed since her schooldays, with a key milestone being the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006, which made it an official language of the country.
“Things have improved over the years – acceptance of sign language has changed tremendously. People are making more of an effort and there’s more people learning sign language.
“But in terms of services and information, and achieving access and so one, there’s still a long way to go.”
Addressing these issues is the space in which Rachel now works.
She is General Manager Disability for Capital and Coast District Health Board, working to promote inclusive and accessible health care services.
Rachel is also the Co-Chair of Wellington City Council’s Accessibility Advisory Group, which gives the Council feedback and advice from the view of disabled people.
“We have a shared goal in wanting Wellington to be an inclusive and accessible city.”
Rachel says the Council ensures she has access to an interpreter at meetings, and this is a good reminder to all in attendance “that Deaf people are very much part of the community and are Wellingtonians as well”.
She says Deaf people access the world visually and learn intuitively to adapt within a hearing environment.
“But in the Deaf world, where sign language is used, it’s more like home, where you can be your authentic self. Whereas in the hearing world, you can but you can’t – we’re always having to navigate and it’s an extra pressure.”
She says there are good programmes for learning New Zealand Sign Language which can be found on teachsign.org.nz, and there’s a richness to be gained by being a part of both the Deaf and hearing communities.
“People with hearing who learn sign language become aware of our human rights and they become our allies. For example, if they see no interpreter with the Prime Minister at key events – they’ll speak up for us.
“This week is all about raising awareness of sign language – the language of the Deaf community – and how it enables the Deaf community to have access to information, communication and community.”
New Zealand Sign Language Week runs from 21 to 27 September 2020.
- Rachel was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit In 2014 for services to the Deaf. She is also the founder of Disability Pride Week.