The Catholic Diocese of Auckland was given the NZSL Employer Award for 2022 by Deaf Aotearoa during New Zealand Sign Language Week.
The award was given to the diocese for its effort to be inclusive of two Deaf pastoral staff by ensuring
that there was always correct NZSL interpretation at significant diocesan events.
The award also recognised the effort of Pastoral Services Group Leader Sr Sian Owen, RSJ, to be proficient in sign language.
“When I came to the diocese, I was leader of the religious education team, as it was called then,” she said.
“I had a staff member who I needed to talk to without an interpreter, and that’s why I made some effort
to do sign language learning. And by doing that I was able to see and hear the needs of the Catholic Deaf
community in a different way.”
Sr Sian said she had no idea that the diocese had been nominated for the award.
“I was very humbled by it. I was quite excited for the diocese, because I think it is a recognition that we have come a long way in terms of creating an inclusive work environment, which extends out to creating a more inclusive Church community,” she said.
The leader of the pastoral group said the award also acknowledges that the diocese “puts its money where its mouth is”.
“We have access to finance for interpreters should we need them. And that’s really good because . . . [a lack
of interpreters] could be a barrier.
She also observed that people who work in the diocese have become very good at planning for the involvement of the Deaf community, in that they anticipate what the interpreters need.
“There’s a real heightened awareness that inclusion is important and that it require[s] effort,” she said.
Sr Sian said that the Catholic Deaf community is very strong and active in Auckland.
“However, while we don’t have any priest that uses sign language, there will always be exclusion, because interpretation is still once removed, particularly in terms of the sacrament of reconciliation. It’s not quite the same when it’s being translated,” she said.
Another challenge for providing pastoral service to the Deaf community is the fact that, “we are inviting
them to another culture, which is Catholic culture”.
“One of our challenges at the moment is providing formation for interpreters, so that they can be upskilled in Catholic Christian signs,” she said.
“For instance, the person presenting us [with] the award said or signed in his presentation that he
had to learn new signs before he could present the award because he needed a sign for ‘Mass’. He needed
a sign for ‘Catholic’ and things like that.”
Sr Sian said that the word “Eucharist” isn’t in the NZSL dictionary, and even between the different Christian
denominations, there are differences in sign. Catholics, for example, would sign “church” with palms
together in a prayer position, while another Christian tradition would have the palms apart.
Sr Sian acknowledged the “wonderful and committed” interpreters for the diocese: Felicity Crowe, Deborah Lynch and Laura Cherrington.