Why NZ Sign Language is so important to this beautiful family
Raising two Deaf children comes naturally to Grace Covey, who knows first-hand the joys and challenges of growing up in silence.
Three-year-old Ruby has the attention of everyone in the room; five adults and her one-year-old brother, Charlie, hanging on her every word. The vivacious toddler is chatting and laughing, pointing out her toys and sharing them around her new friends. But it’s the way she’s communicating that is worth noting. She’s using New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) to tell us about her colourful crayons while her mother, Grace, and two interpreters reply in sign language and translate what Ruby is saying.
Grace Covey, 30, and her children, – Ruby and Charlie Agnew, are all profoundly Deaf. Grace does have a cochlear implant – a device which stimulates the auditory nerve to give the sensation of hearing, so she can hear sounds in one ear, and communicates via speaking as well as with sign language.
Unlike her children, Grace was born to hearing parents. Her mum and dad, Debbie and Dennis Covey, were quick to embrace Deaf culture. “When my parents found out that I was Deaf, the first thing that Mum did was go to sign language classes and whatever she learned, she brought home and taught me,” Grace says. Her father started advocating for better access for Deaf people, and both parents joined the boards of associations such as the National Foundation for Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “They were really open minded and really respected the Deaf culture,” says Grace. “My parents have been amazing, they are there for me every step of the way.” And now they’re advocating for their grandchildren, the second Deaf generation in their family.
TEACH THEM YOUNG
Grace’s parents didn’t find out she was Deaf until she was one. She got a cochlear implant at five years old, and spoke her first word around the age of six. “It took a while to adjust because the first five years of my life I was profoundly Deaf and then all of a sudden I had access to sound,” she explains.
Grace never expected her own children to be Deaf, partly because their father, Grace’s former partner Ben Agnew, who is also Deaf, had two hearing children from a previous relationship. However, because both parents were Deaf, the children were tested straight after birth. Grace and Ben found out that Ruby was Deaf when she was just two days old, and Charlie at one day old. Grace had mixed emotions, including happiness that she could bond with her children over Deaf culture and the use of sign language, and concern that they would go through some of the same struggles she went through. When she found out Ruby was Deaf, Grace remembers thinking, “I’m going to have to work really hard for her to be accepted for who she is.”
“I do worry about them bonding or making friends, just because of the experiences I went through,” Grace shares. “Growing up, I was a massive bookworm because being the only Deaf kid in my classroom and the school, I didn’t make friends very easily so I just spent all my breaks in the library reading.”
She’s also aware her children won’t have as many Deaf children to sign with at a young age. "Most Deaf kids have hearing parents, so many don’t learn sign language until they start preschool or even school," she says. But because Grace and Ben use sign language, and they found out Ruby and Charlie were Deaf when they were newborns, the kids have been exposed to it from day one. Grace says it’s a blessing that everyone in their family’s the same. “You can bond, you can fall back on sign language. Charlie understands a number of words now, and Ruby’s use of sign language has taken off." That’s why Grace believes access to language is so important. “Give kids language no matter what. It can be oral, it can be sign, it can be whatever, but do give them access to language because that’s how they develop the brain.”
Ruby goes to preschool at Ko Taku Reo Deaf Education New Zealand (formerly Kelston Deaf Education Centre), which is the national school for the Deaf and hard of hearing. “She’s the boss of preschool,” says Grace. “She’s a leader, she loves to learn, she just picks up everything.” The school is a six-minute drive from the family’s home in West Auckland, and Grace worked there until recently. Charlie is currently at a hearing daycare but will join Ruby at Ko Taku Reo when he's two. Grace hasn’t decided yet whether the kids will go to a Deaf or hearing school. She is considering getting cochlear implants for them, so her decision will, in part, depend on that.
FINDING HER FEET
Grace struggled with loneliness at school and it wasn’t until, as a teen, she went to Deaf Club at the Auckland Deaf Society that she felt part of a community. She started organising events such as balls and swimming days. These days she is the society’s chairperson of the board, and Ruby calls Deaf Club her second home.
Newly taken with the world of events, and struggling at school without access to an interpreter and with only very limited access to a note taker, Grace left school at 17 when she saw a promotion for an event management course at Unitec. It turned out to be the best decision, as she was given access to interpreters and note takers, and started to get really good marks. “That’s when I just thrived.”
After her own experience, Grace is determined that her children will receive support in school from the beginning. “When I found out that Ruby was Deaf, Mum said to me, 'You’ve got a lifetime ahead of you of advocating',” Grace says, and she’s really beginning to appreciate this now.
There is more than just personal passion behind Grace’s fight for access. There is a tragic history of discrimination of Deaf people, particularly in regards to education. In 1880, the use of sign language was banned after The Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf; a conference of all Teachers of Deaf in Milan (all hearing teachers except for one), which focused on oralism (teaching Deaf people to speak and lip-read rather than sign). New Zealand Deaf schools upheld this ruling, and children were punished for using sign language, and robbed of language and a significant aspect of Deaf culture for around one hundred years. Thankfully, sign language was still used in secret by students, helping to develop what we now know as NZSL.
It wasn't until the late 1970s and 1980s when sign language was once again allowed in our schools, although this was initially a form of signed English, (following the grammatical form of English language, unlike NZSL, which has its own grammatical structure and language features). NZSL was finally introduced in Deaf Education New Zealand in 1995, and became an official language of New Zealand alongside Māori and English, in 2006.
Grace would love everyone to learn NZSL. She says it would have a huge impact if hearing people used simple sign language greetings at places like the supermarket. “It really needs to be taught in schools as an optional or essential language,” she says. The community is limited for Deaf people, so there are less people to interact with. “It would be really good if people could be more open-minded just to learn a few words of sign language because it really does make a Deaf person’s day. Parents of hearing children can also benefit from teaching sign language to their children when they are young. Learning sign language is easier for children than speaking as there are less muscles needed, Grace explains. “You can have babies signing as young as six months.”
Although Grace says it can often be more peaceful with Deaf children, the kids don’t hear themselves, so if Grace has her cochlear implant on it can still get very loud. Like most kids their age, they love playing with pots and pans. “If they get too loud, I take my implant off,” laughs Grace. Another bonus is the TV only needs to be on silent with subtitles.
At times this sense of quiet can become problematic though. The police turned up during one of Auckland's lockdowns because the alarm was going off – the kids love to play with the buttons on the alarm and neither they nor Grace could hear it as she had taken her implant off – but all the neighbours could!
Disciplining can also be tricky. If the children don’t want to be told off, they can just close their eyes so they can’t see their mum signing (a trick Grace did herself when she was little). But for all the challenging moments, Grace sees her and her children’s deafness as a blessing, and knows it won’t hold them back in any way. “Being Deaf is cool, being Deaf is fun, you can do whatever you want being Deaf. The only thing you can’t do is hear. Other than that, we can be builders, we can be lawyers, we can be doctors.” Or avatars, it appears – Grace’s new job as communications manager and sign language expert at Kara Technologies includes working with motion capture; filming signs to be used by an avatar to provide translations for children’s books. She’s no stranger to this type of work, having provided translations for a number of videos, including a few collaborations with singer and entertainer Anika Moa.
Grace has some words of wisdom for parents who may be just starting out on their Deaf journey. “I know it can be quite terrifying for a parent having no knowledge or experience with Deaf culture, getting told that their child is Deaf. Don’t be scared. Just because they can’t hear you, doesn’t mean they can’t thrive when they are given the opportunity to be empowered with their language and culture.”
iSign kindly provided interpreters for this story. isign.co.nz
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 55 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW