A lithe superhero with infinite power in the hands slides beneath to the underworld, guided by the hypnotising eyes of a Pīwakawaka. A tuatara locks it in a death grip, but she manages to break free by finger-spelling the magic word… Amanda Everitt and Melissa Malzkuhn chat about storytelling in NZSL [with English captions].
How does storytelling include Deaf characters without stereotyping ? How is Deaf Culture represented in our stories so deaf children can see themselves in the narrative?
Amanda and Melissa chat about storytelling in New Zealand Sign Language [with English captions] here, and the transcript is below.
Melissa: What is the current trend regarding including culture in children’s books in NZ?
Amanda: In Aotearoa, we have made leaps to acknowledge the diversity of cultures of NZ across the motu. Our new national holiday of Matariki is coming up, so we see books with culture steeped in history and Mātauranga Māori, stories that tell of the stars, of navigation and of our way of being. One such book is the Seven Kites of Matariki by Calico McClintock. We can connect with these stories as these are unique to Aotearoa. Stories with characters that speak of our whaea Marama or our matua Jim.
Deaf children look at these, and they struggle to see themselves in these stories
There are books with diverse characters, but does diversity include Deaf people too? We have long been seen as a disability group rather than a group with our own language, culture and history. Is the general understanding of diversity intertwined with Deaf people as a cultural group yet?
Imagine deaf detectives having the run of the land or superhero nurses scaling a massive rock wall, doing things other than the story focusing on the fact they are Deaf or stereotyping them.
M: Is there good representation of Deaf people and culture, and of NZSL in children’s books?
A: When my Deaf daughter was born, naturally as a Deaf mother I wanted to introduce her to books with Deaf characters. I could not find many in NZ so most of the books I sourced from overseas. Most of the books we have are translated from original English books. I wanted to find books that were created by Deaf people, with illustrations that showed Deaf culture as well as having a unique NZ flavour.
Often, the deaf child is represented by sporting a hearing aid or cochlear implant, but deaf children vary widely in their use of technology or languages. And aspects of Deaf culture are not woven into the story. We have a long and rich history within our culture. There are customs such as the gifting of a name sign to a person within the community and it would be magic if this could be shown in a book! That is true representation. Imagine deaf detectives having the run of the land or superhero nurses scaling a massive rock wall, doing things other than the story focusing on the fact they are Deaf or stereotyping them.
A: How does sign language literature and/or literacy benefit the deaf child?
M: This is a global issue. It is common in countries and cultures everywhere. Let’s go back to the big picture. All humans are primed for stories. Stories connect us. Great storytelling leads the child into learning, from learning language to expressing languages.
Now, for Deaf children, we have decades of research in sign language and bilingualism which shows that early sign language acquisition builds the foundation for healthy cognitive development and for literacy development. Exposing the deaf child to sign language from the time they are born primes their brain to acquire and use languages.
Technology has given us, at the Motion Light Lab, an opportunity to design storybook apps based on research.
You do not have to be a good signer, what matters is your continuing effort in signing.
M: What can parents do to connect with their deaf children through storytelling? It is often to do with their attitudes to language. Having that enthusiasm to include sign language into the home. Being open to this would mean the deaf child can connect to what it means to learn language.
There has been some research done by the Visual Language and Visual Learning Center which shows the link between the attitudes of parents of deaf children and the child’s development of reading and writing. It does not matter if the parent is a fluent signer or not, what matters is their attitude to learning sign language and continuing to sign. You do not have to be a good signer, what matters is your continuing effort in signing. Families who used no sign language in the home often had children who did not progress with their reading and writing. The more open your home is to be a multilingual household, the more your deaf child will thrive as a bilingual learner. (This research can be explored here).
A: So in terms of language, should parents think about the child’s access to language whatever the modality?
M: Visual language, it needs to be visual. That is the foundation from where everything springs.
A: Yes, and it is those language learning moments that are important. Where parents can sit, read and write with their child everyday, as much as they can.
M: What are good examples of storytelling practice?
If we can include Deaf storytellers, it means that Deaf children can see themselves in the literature.
A: Yes, and if we can expand our horizons beyond translating books from one language to another. If we can include Deaf storytellers, it means that Deaf children can see themselves in the literature. Some may think it is a great idea to create a story which has Deaf characters and consult with the Deaf community during this process. But consultation does not mean co-creation. Involving Deaf people from the start to the finish means that all the cultural nuances can be embedded in the story. This may seem minimal, but it is such an important part of storytelling. For example, our Deaf ways of getting attention such as tapping people on the shoulder being planted throughout the story. I’d love to see more of this in NZ.
M: And on a global level too! Any last words?
A: Absolutely. Deaf people are a part of the diversity landscape. It is not just about including Deaf characters in a story, it is about looking at how Deaf people could contribute to the evolution of storytelling itself.
Storytelling resources for Deaf and Hard of Hearing tamariki
- The Baobab is available in NZSL, made by Melissa’s lab, the Motion Light Lab, collaborating with Merge NZ
- Kara Tech have a number of NZSL stories told by avatars
- The Ministry of Education has some NZSL Translations of the Ready to Read Series
- Ko Taku Reo have lots of translations of children’s books on Turi TV