By Sandi Black
This year saw the celebration of 10 years of New Zealand Sign Language as an official language of our country. This is a great achievement, considering sign language’s shaky past in New Zealand.
NZSL is closely related to British and Australian SL, and began here with the arrival of deaf immigrants. Like a lot of imports, it developed its own variety to reflect our culture and lifestyle. The first school for the deaf opened 1880 in Sumner, Christchurch, and was followed by other branches in Auckland and Feilding. Sign language, however, was not initially permitted in classrooms and deaf students received the message it was not an appropriate way to communicate. This didn’t stop children and adults from covertly using and creating signs.
A century later in 1979 the Australasian Signed English Language was adopted as part of a new approach of Total Communication in Deaf Education. A more positive point of view developed and in the mid-1980s local sign language was thoroughly researched, documented and named NZSL. It has been adopted for use in deaf education since 1993 and was legally recognised as an official language of NZ in 2006.
But what about other methods of assisted hearing? The Whanganui Regional Museum has two very different hearing aids in the collection. One is the familiar moulded earpiece with an amplifier and battery pack. It dates from 1950s-1960s and was used in the tutorial department at Wanganui Hospital.
The other is significantly older. It is an ear trumpet made by James Woolley & Sons Ltd in the late 19th century. The brass mechanism consists of a sound-capturing bowl which directs the sound through the extendable funnel and into the Bakelite earpiece.
These are just two examples of hearing aids that have been used in the past. Before the more discrete and streamlined models we are used to today, hearing assistance devices were large and bulky, often dysfunctional and bringing attention to the user’s deafness, rather than normalising the condition. Some unusual examples are:
- Acoustic fans made of metal and held behind the ear to direct sound in or fitted with a trumpet on one side
- Bone conduction fan whose end was placed against the user’s teeth to allow the sound vibration to travel through the bone to the ear
- Acoustic chairs either fitted with sound catching trumpets next to the sitter’s ears or with hollows in the arms which funnelled sound to a tube at the back, inserted into the ear
- Water Canteen Receptor designed for use on horseback; while it looked like a water canteen, the grillwork top caught sound and transported it to the ear through a rubber tube
- Beard Receptacle was a curved metal tube with a sound vent at the front which sat on the upper chest, hidden under the beard (or a scarf for women), leading to a long tube which led up to rubber ear pieces
- Vase Receptacle for fruit or flowers with six sound receptors covered with grillwork, that collected sound and funnelled it into ear pieces
- Acoustic Cane with a handle designed as a hollow sound collector and fitted with a moveable ear piece for use in either ear; the cane was lifted to rest on a man’s shoulder with the sound collector aimed towards the speaker and an ear piece in the ear. Women could use a parasol or umbrella with similarly concealed devices.
Sandi Black is the Archivist at the Whanganui Regional Museum.