NEW ZEALAND – Eight years after the last census, specialists discovered that the rise of cochlear implants comes hand in hand with a decrease in the use of New Zealand Sign Language. The country is currently experiencing a division between those who support the use of implants and wish to raise their children as regular, hearing boys and girls, and those who support the use of sign language and believe in the sense of community it fosters.
Decrease in the Number of Signers
Since 2006, New Zealand has lost one fifth of the total number of signers. Currently, the number of sign language users is of approximately 20,200, compared to the 24,000 users of 2006. Sym Gardiner, father of a seven year-old girl who received cochlear implants at the age of two, stated that around 350 children in New Zealand are now able to hear as a result of cochlear implants, 46 of which were funded by the New Zealand government.
Advantages of the Implants
Gardiner himself commented on the divisions between the cochlear implant proponents and the sign language community, whose identity is closely tied to their own language and ability to sign. Gardiner believes that New Zealand Sign Language has little chance of surviving, especially if cochlear implants become pervasive. He personally decided to raise her daughter Katya as a hearing child and has no interest in her identifying herself with the deaf community. According to Gardiner, teaching children sign language negatively affects the uptake of oral language, causing further difficulties with education and mainstreaming processes.
Advantages of Sign Language
Rachel McKee, a Deaf Studies senior lecturer, states that even though the technology that allows for cochlear implants has improved greatly in the last few years, implants can always fail. According to her, in many cases, sign language is a tool which can be used as an extra support to allow communication, especially since the quality of the hearing after implants does not reach the natural hearing quality levels. Moreover, the lecturer adds that children who can both sign and speak have significant cognitive advantages, just like any other bilingual child would. McKee states that, unless parents are extremely careful, children with cochlear implants could end up feeling isolated from both natural hearing groups and sign language users.