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Zooming in to connect Deaf Kiwis

Deaf New Zealanders have used video conferencing during the lockdown – thanks to the swift actions of a Hamilton business.

WordsWorth Interpreting successfully moved its services online early in the lockdown, allowing Deaf people to access sign language interpretation and translation.

The business, owned by Shannon McKenzie, is an online booking service for sign language interpreters.

She has a network of more than 50 sign language interpreters nationwide and co-ordinates bookings for New Zealand’s Deaf community, numbering more than 5000, from her Hamilton home. 

When the pandemic started in mid-March, conventional face to face interpretation bookings were cancelled so, like many businesses, WordsWorth had to quickly adjust. 

“We would normally send out interpreters face to face and we couldn’t do that.  So, all of our jobs got cancelled basically the same day,” says Shannon. 

“But a lot of them wanted to continue so we decided to go online, either through the platforms Discord, Zoom, WebEx or the like.”

One of the first things she did was purchase a Zoom subscription allowing their contractors and clients to connect from their homes. 

One user is Sarah Mason, a Deaf community representative on an accessibility advisory group.   "When the lockdown happened, I felt so disconnected and lost! As soon as Zoom meeting were set up and I saw there was still some sort of structure I felt so much better and happier.  Even though this was not the norm it felt like the new normal.”

And Hamilton City Council’s Disability Advisor Judy Small said this: “It has been really awesome for us to be able to access the service during lockdown to keep people connected with council's work."

It was a learning curve for everyone involved.  “We had to contact all of our interpreters and see who was geared up for it, like who had webcams and who had the software and the childcare to be able to do it,” says Shannon.

There have been many successful instances of interpreters helping clients do things like connect to work Zoom meetings, liaise with government agencies, access Family Court hearings and participate in church services – to name just a few.  

Shannon, who herself is a sign language interpreter, says going online means the Deaf can carry on in life.  “Because access needs do not stop just because we are in lockdown.”

“We have discovered lots of new stuff and people are a lot more open minded to doing things online now.”

Shannon says having the Prime Minister’s media briefings translated by a sign language interpreter has been an opportunity for a wide audience to see role modelling of good practice. 

“That has allowed us to explain to people what is needed.  I hope the mood of generosity and inclusiveness and togetherness – kotahitanga - is perpetuated beyond lockdown.”

Shannon works from her Hamilton home where she has a studio enabling her to record sign language translations to send on to clients. 

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