Sign of the times for Titahi Bay family

ANDREA O'NEIL
Last updated 17:08 25/01/2013
Sign language
Andrea O'Neil
SIGN OF THE TIMES: Titahi Bay's Ferguson family - from top, Oliver, Bridget, Zoe and Elijah spell out ''deaf camp''.

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It may be an official language of New Zealand, but sign language is often denied to deaf people, something a Titahi Bay family hopes to change.

The Fergusons - deaf dad Oliver and daughter Zoe, 11, and hearing mum Bridget and son Elijah, 9, will spend this weekend at a camp and conference for deaf families in Christchurch. The kids will have a rare chance to play with others like them, while their parents plan to network like mad in hopes of improving education for deaf Wellington children.

The Fergusons moved to Sydney when Zoe was young, to give her the benefits of a specialist school for deaf children.

When they moved back to New Zealand she started at St Pius X School, which has embraced sign language - Zoe's whole class greeted her in sign language on her first day, and the school started lunchtime sign language clubs.

That embrace of sign language is all too rare, Mr Ferguson says. Deaf children are discouraged from learning sign language by medical and education specialists, and encouraged to lip read and get hearing aids and cochlear implants instead. There is no support system for parents of deaf preschoolers to learn or teach sign language, he says.

The fear is deaf children will isolate themselves by exclusively learning sign language, but often kids fail to learn lip reading and fall behind at school, Mr Ferguson says.

''They're isolating them. It's a very medical system, like they need to be fixed. We're not sick,'' he says.

''Give them access to sound but why not let them learn sign language as well? Give them access to both worlds. You can do both, you can be bilingual.''

More money is spent by the Ministry of Education teaching hearing children to sign than is spent on supporting deaf kids themselves, with funding shortages leaving most kids without interpreters or teacher aides for much of the school day, Mr Ferguson says.

The attitude starts at birth. Zoe is a third-generation deaf child - Mr Ferguson's parents are deaf - which wasn't seen by many as something to celebrate, he says.

''Many people said 'oh, a deaf baby, how sad'. For us it wasn't, it was exciting.''

Mr Ferguson, a board member of Deaf Aotearoa and Van Asch deaf school in Christchurch, would love to see a school for deaf kids set up in Wellington, or at least an education hub they can take some lessons at.

He would also like to see sign language embraced by the wider community.

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''We need to get out there in the community more and let hearing people know we're normal, sign language is just another language. We can do everything except for hear.''

The Fergusons' attendance at the NZ Deaf and Hearing Impaired Parents Conference and Children's Camp has been made possible thanks to a grant from Jetstar.

- Kapi-Mana News

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