Positive changes in education

In April the Ministry of Education welcomed two new interns, Mark Berry and Zac Best, to the Ministry’s New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) project team. The 12-week internships were the first-ever roles of their kind, targeting recent graduates fluent in NZSL, and with a strong understanding of Deaf culture

So far, Mark and Zac have been involved in everything from providing ideas and advice on the Ministry’s NZSL work programme through to helping out at government events and teaching NZSL to staff.

Jacqui Gibson caught up with the pair to find out what they’ve enjoyed most about the internships. We asked them to reflect on what they’ve learned and let us know where they’re headed to next.

Q: Mark, what got you interested in a Ministry of Education internship?

As a native NZSL user, I felt this was an ideal opportunity for me to contribute to the Ministry’s NZSL work and to shape their response to the Human Rights Commission Report, A New Era in the Right to Sign. Also, I’d never worked in the public service before, so I wanted to get insight into the machinery of government and see how things work.

Q: What insights into the Ministry have you gained, Mark?

Things take time! Or they happen really, really fast. There’s no middle ground it seems. But more importantly, there are a lot of passionate people doing good work. In our project, for example, the school and family initiatives aimed at increasing access to NZSL mean there’s potential for huge growth in the language over time. The Census tells us there are about 20,000 users now, but in the future, well, who knows? It’ll be great to see that number grow and keep growing because of what’s happening in education.

Q: What have been some of the highlights so far?

In NZSL Week, the Ministry launched new e-books aimed at giving young children better access to sign. It was cool to see kids get so much pleasure out of an iconic story like Hairy Maclary told in sign. That same month, we saw a new NZSL facilitator service launched in Wellington for deaf infants and their families. The plan is to make it available nationally as soon as possible. Those things have been real highlights.

Q: What about you, Zac. What are your highlights?

I’d agree with Mark. Seeing those initiatives get under way has been awesome. On a different topic, I’d say I’ve enjoyed the chance to be a Deaf role model within the Ministry. We’ve had the opportunity to speak up on the issues that matter to us and to contribute equally, alongside others.

There are still a lot of barriers to Deaf people getting good jobs and the kind of employment opportunities they’re skilled and qualified for. So, it’s been positive to work in a team with great attitudes and people who appreciate our perspective and what we bring to the workplace.

Q: Zac, we hear you’ve been teaching NZSL to Minister Parata – what’s that been like?

It’s been really good fun, actually. The Minister’s super engaged, being bilingual and believing in the importance of cultural identity expressed through language. She launched the Ready to Read e-books here in Wellington at Sacred Heart Cathedral School and the facilitator service at Te Papa, so there’s a lot of support there at the government level. I even found out recently her youngest sister – the Minister is one of 10 kids – is hearing impaired, so there’s that personal connection to Deaf issues too.

Q: And how about your Ministry colleagues? How are they getting on with learning NZSL?

They’re doing pretty well. I’ve been really impressed with their commitment and their obvious pleasure at learning a visual language. We’ve got a group of about a dozen regulars at Mark’s after-work NZSL lessons. Every week they go from strength to strength. They’ve picked up that NZSL is a great language for the office – for starters, you can still get together when there are no meeting rooms available and chew through the issues without disrupting anyone. That can be a very handy thing in a place like this.

Q: Finally, to you both: what’s next?

Zac – For me, I’m going to see what happens. The last three months have really opened my eyes to the difference you can make in the public service – and in the education sector, particularly. So, I might look for opportunities to keep going on the path I’m on. We’ll see.

Mark – I agree it’s been a great experience to be part of the Ministry’s internship programme and the NZSL project. I’ve loved every minute. In August, I’m off to Denmark for nine months as a New Zealand representative on the International Deaf Youth Leadership Training Programme called Frontrunners. It’ll give me the chance to learn more about being a role model for the Deaf community and making changes for Deaf people. And I’ll get to meet some amazing young leaders. After that, who knows? I’m happy to see what happens – things are pretty exciting right now.

About Zac Best

Zac grew up in Auckland in a hearing family and learned sign language as a baby, alongside his mum, aunty and grandparents who started learning sign as soon as Zac was diagnosed profoundly deaf at three months old. Zac attended mainstream schools as well as Kelston and van Asch Deaf Education Centres. He has a Bachelor of Arts (Criminology) from Auckland University of Technology and a Bachelor of Arts Honours (Criminology) and Certificate in Deaf Studies: Teaching NZSL from Victoria University of Wellington.

About Mark Berry

Mark grew up in Christchurch in a Deaf family of six where everyone signs. He’s a native sign language user, so NZSL is his first language and his parents’ main language. Mark attended van Asch Deaf Education Centre in Christchurch and spent a year in the United States as an AFS student. He attended both the University of Canterbury and Victoria University of Wellington, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Second Language Education.

This story was first published in Talk Hands magazine.

Ministry of Education interns Mark Berry and Zac Best (image care of the Ministry of Education).

Ministry of Education interns Mark Berry and Zac Best (image care of the Ministry of Education).