Could you describe your upbringing in New Zealand?
My childhood was very idyllic. Imagine great big blue skies, the foam of the surf lapping at your feet, catching a wave on a bodyboard and crashing down into sandcastles, carefree summer days spent licking hokey pokey icecream and playing cricket along the beach…
Making you jealous? Seriously, I had a childhood that I would hope every child experiences.
Like me, my mother is deaf. Thanks to the rigidity of the education system in the ’60’s, she was brought up oral (without sign language) and didn’t have a very nice experience. The focus was all about learning how to speak properly without teaching her the meaning behind words.
When I was born and diagnosed as deaf, she wanted me to acquire the language that she never had. I grew up using Signed English and attended a local deaf unit. . As I progressed through the system, I went into the mainstream school more and more for my core subjects but I ran back to the unit to have a roaring social life at lunchtimes. My hearing friends had to make appointments to see me!
I did not really know what I wanted to do when I left school but I was inspired by some of my older deaf friends who had gone on to University. They encouraged me to give it a try, explaining what kind of support I could get. I chose a mixture of law and sociology papers in my first year, and got into second year law along with only 200 people in my year. I found Law very uninspiring but as I went on, I thought that I may as well finish it. Finish it I did, and five years later I graduated with a double degree in Law and Sociology. Oh, and I had a notetaker who was blind.
What is the Deaf community like there?
The Deaf community in NZ is very close knit, we were always doing things together. Friday nights, I would go to the Deaf Club and sell toasted sandwiches to the punters with my Netball team, and have a cuppa with the old deaf folk who lived behind the club. We were all friends with each other, from the tiny 1 year old wailing from under the table to the 80 year old gent I had whiskey with occasionally! Of course, knowing each other really well did not come without its drawbacks! But it also meant we could achieve a lot together. NZ Sign Language became an official language of NZ in 2006.
What brought you to England?
After some work launching our National NZ Sign Language Week, I moved to London for what you would call the obligatory Great Big Kiwi Overseas Experience. I was travelling in Europe in the summer and I landed in London with nothing else but one scraggy backpack. After a search on Google one rainy day, I found a job with RAD Deaf Law Centre. I had so much fun with these guys, but the website world was a-calling and that’s how I ended up with the National Deaf Children’s Society.
Tell me about your work for the NDCS.
I’m a Participation Officer which basically means I make sure that deaf young people are involved in EVERYTHING we do! It is very easy to slot oneself into a frame of mind that says “deaf children need this” when all you need to do is ask the deaf child, “What do you want?” They’ll surprise you.
You run the Buzz site at the moment – what is that like?
The Buzz, now has 1,300 deaf young members from all over the country. It is great fun and every day is so different! I can deal with replying to questions from deaf young people about things like how to find other deaf young people near them, what kind of support they should be getting at college and how to deal with being left out at school.
It’s really important to me to give these deaf young people the information and options they should be getting. I also work with a website safety moderation company, upload events, visit schools and develop information and advice resources that are accessible. The latest campaign I am working on is our Look, Smile, Chat campaign, which tells hearing teenagers about the simple steps they can follow to make communicating easy and make a big difference to deaf young people. You can find films and resources at www.buzz.org.uk/looksmilechat
Interview by Charlie Swinbourne
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