On International Sign Language Day, Indian Weekender speaks to Rekha Rosario, the only qualified Indian sign language interpreter in New Zealand.

Navdeep Kaur Marwah

Today, September 23,  the world will observe the International Day of Sign Languages. The day celebrates the linguistic diversity of deaf people and sign language users globally. In 2018, the United Nations declared September 23 as International Day of Sign Languages to elevate the value of sign languages and acknowledge their importance. 

This year the theme for the International Day of Sign Languages is “We sign for Human Rights”.

On this special occasion, Indian Weekender spoke to Rekha Rosario, who is the only qualified Indian sign language interpreter in New Zealand and an inspiration for one and all.

Rekha, who originally hails from Kerala, India, but has spent most of her time in Mumbai, migrated to New Zealand in 2002.

Talking about the significance of this day, Rekha, who currently lives in Canterbury, says, “The International Day of Sign Languages as officially announced by the United Nations gives Sign Languages around the world equal status to spoken languages. Sign Languages are unique in the visual representation of spoken languages and have their grammatical structure. 

“This day is a celebration of the linguistic identity of Deaf people, their families, the deaf communities, Disability organisations and Sign Language Interpreters worldwide. It is significant as it recognises the diversity and human rights of Deaf people. Like New Zealand Sign Language, there are over 300 Sign Languages used across the world. The International Day of Sign Languages recognises each of these Sign Languages for what it does to integrate deaf people into mainstream society.”

Talking about New Zealand specifically, we all witness New Zealand Sign language interpreters on our screens daily during the Covid 19 briefing, which highlights the significance of New Zealand Sign Language (an official language of Aotearoa). 

“On 6 April 2006, I witnessed New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) passing the third reading in Parliament. This made NZSL one of the two official languages of Aotearoa,” the 47-year-old says.  

“It was a hallmark moment for the Deaf community as it established an ongoing legal provision for Deaf people to have access to education, communication, and equal participation in society. It led to a cascading positive influence of the right to access provisions. Whilst this was a very positive step forward,  a lot of work needs to be done to bridge the inequalities that Deaf people continue to face in their regular lives. It is also encouraging to see more Deaf leadership getting developed.”

On being asked about what prompted her to become a sign language interpreter, she answers, “I have a deaf uncle in India who faced the same barriers to communication without sign language access. When my immediate family migrated to Auckland from Mumbai 19 years ago, I had the opportunity to look at a career change. Having studied accounting and worked in Indian Central Excise & Customs, I choose to learn a new skill. 

“I explored learning NZSL in the Summer School at Auckland University of Technology (AUT). NZSL is taught by extremely skilled Deaf tutors. This was my hook into NZSL interpreting, which saw me graduate in 2007 from AUT as an NZSL Interpreter. Since then, being the only Indian qualified NZSL Interpreter, I am part of the Sign Language Interpreters Association of New Zealand (SLIANZ). 

“Over the years whilst working in the NZ Deaf community, I have been privileged to support communication for our Indian Deaf Kiwis in various settings, bringing them closer to their heritage. The most satisfying part of being an NZSL Interpreter is being able to work with Deaf people and to see their language needs being met, and being able to make their voices heard in various situations."

Being a senior sign language interpreter, Rekha has worked with most politicians across different political parties. She has even done Parliament interpreting for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during the Budget session. Sharing her experience she says, “For me, the most challenging experience is the budget interpreting due to factors like the speed, liveliness, accuracy coupled with the opposition trying to have their debate as well. But it was rewarding as well.”

Ask her about the biggest highlight of her interpreting career, and she says, “I did Interpreting for an Indian deaf couple at their wedding using NZSL. I translated all the Sanskrit hymns as well as vows. It was an unforgettable experience.”

Interestingly, Rekha is also involved in community service. “We have set up a desi Indian group comprising of predominantly Indian deaf people. During Diwali and other Indian occasions, we do presentations for them. We try to give them extra support, and to be able to do so is quite rewarding,” she says.

Rekha feels the recognition of NZSL has spiked an awareness and a greater interest in the NZSL Interpreter profession. She says, “As more deaf people gain better access, there is a growing demand for skilled Interpreters. As more and more Deaf people are exercising their right to access information in NZSL, along with the increased general awareness of NZSL amongst the NZ population, there is a need for interpreters from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. 

“Demand is also steadily increasing for more and more interpreters to enter the workforce. It is an amazing career for those who love languages and working with people.”

On a personal note, Rekha enjoys spending time with her family. “When I am not busy with my interpreting work, I spend most of my time with my husband and two daughters (aged 25 and 17). Even my mother is currently staying with us, and it is good to have her here considering the Covid situation in India,” Rekha signs off.