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Published Monday 7 May 2018

This week is New Zealand Sign Language week – did you know NZSL has been an official language of New Zealand since 2006?

Hutt Valley DHB is fortunate to have Joanne Witko who shares her time between Hutt Valley, Capital & Coast and Wairarapa DHBs and has a role dedicated to improving access to the deaf community for health services.

Jo works closely with a deaf advisory group and the local deaf community to ensure that any change we make are what the community needs and wants. Part of this work is to make information easier for staff to access, such as knowing when and how to book a NZSL interpreter.

A foundation for Joanne’s work was a research project on access to healthcare in the three DHBs by deaf NZSL users. Working with a research team of Pauline Boyles, Kirsten Smiler and Rachel McKee, their work was presented in an article published in the New Zealand Medical Journal last year that highlighted several key issues.

These issues included:

  • inconsistent interpreter provision

  • lack of informed consent for treatment via communication in NZSL

  • limited access to general health information in NZSL

  • reduced ability of deaf patients to understand and comply with treatment options.

Joanne says this problematic communication with NZSL users echoes international evidence and other documented local evidence for patients with limited English proficiency.

“Deaf NZSL users face multiple barriers to equitable healthcare, stemming from linguistic and educational factors and inaccessible service delivery. These need to be addressed through policy and training for healthcare personnel that enables effective systemic responses to NZSL users.”

One initiative that has been running this year at Hutt and Capital & Coast DHBs has been hosting monthly sessions for staff to experience and practise NZSL over a cup of coffee.

Joanne has also developed some new short videos for the deaf community about helpful bits of information to know when coming to hospital.We will be sharing these videos with the deaf community to mark NZSL week.

“Deaf participants emphasise that recognition of their identity as members of a language community is central to improving their healthcare experiences.”

Do you want to celebrate NZSL week or learn a few signs for yourself or your team? Go to this link and watch a 10-minute video or check out this website to learn a few greetings.

Any questions or comments, please contact