“You’re wonderful”: Village carers learn to sign

Ten staff at Kerikeri Retirement Village learned the basics of this country’s least used official language, New Zealand Sign Language, during the official sign language week marked nationwide in early May.

The courses were conducted as part of the Village’s staff wellness and education programmes. One of the benefits is that it will allow carers to communicate more effectively with a deaf resident in the Village’s Care wing.

Judith Cunniffe was born deaf and had to sign secretly with her childhood sweetheart during an era where, amazingly, the use of sign language was frowned upon. That childhood sweetheart later became her husband, Farrell, who now visits the village daily to spend time with Judith.

“Watching Farrell and Judith share their love through signing is a wonderful thing,” said Cheryl Silich, the Village’s operational support manager.

“Now, at last, we can join in, at least on a basic level, and communicate with Judith much more personally than through written notes on a whiteboard in her room.”

“It was brilliant to see how invested the Village carers were in learning how to communicate with Judith and Farrell,” said Beryl ‘Harri’ Harrison of Deaf Aotearoa, who conducted the ‘taster’ course. “They’re a fabulous crew with hearts the size of a small nation.”

Signing was heavily discouraged around the world for a century from 1880. Only in 1980 was it allowed back into schools in New Zealand. In the intervening years people were discouraged from signing and encouraged instead to adopt oralism. This involved lip reading and verbal communication.

Beryl drew a parallel between signing and te reo Māori.

“Huge effort went into abolishing both languages and, through this, disenfranchising entire communities. Thank goodness those efforts were unsuccessful and today both are once again official languages of our nation. How far both have come in the 39 years since 1980.”