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Paul Palmer: A helping hand for the hard of hearing

You will have noticed Paul Palmer signing for media briefings and community meetings during the Pigeon Valley Fire. Paul has become an integral - and increasingly visual - part of the communication team, as he quietly helps the people around Nelson, and New Zealand with the sometimes life-saving messages.

At a community meeting in Hope the largest round of applause was for Paul, no small feat when the 300 or so hardy souls bestow the same admiration on firefighters, police, and other support agencies gathered to support the community.

Paul is fluent and capable and injects some much-needed humour including signing the MC's quip "I'll get fit doing this" as he rushes out into the audience with a microphone. He is a previous president of the Nelson Deaf Community Inc, a unique position for a hearing person.

Paul Palmer 11feb2019

Paul Palmer has become a familiar face thanks to his role at media conferences relaying what is said in sign language.

Both of Paul's parents were profoundly deaf and he grew up in a household in Motueka where sign language was how they communicated. His father went to a School for the Deaf where sign language was actively discouraged and students were forced to lip-read and to speak. The focus was to integrate them with regular hearing society. As an only child, he was often taken to appointments with his parents, having to sign words he didn't know the meaning of - a pint-sized defacto-interpreter.

Sign language is not a literal, word-for-word translation and does not have a linguistic connection to spoken language. Context is sometimes not known until the speaker has finished - interpreters have to think ahead to anticipate context while not getting too far behind.

A huge part of sign language is conveyed through body language. Some words are emphasised with facial expressions and more rigorous movement to give context and colour. It also varies from country to country. While New Zealand, Australian and British languages are similar, American Sign uses a single hand.

Even here the language can have accents; someone from Auckland can have different signs than someone in Southland. It’s something Paul has to keep in mind while signing for Civil Defence: "what's the sign that's most likely to be understood across the country?".

Nowadays we appreciate the need to make our message available to as many people as possible, including those with difficulty hearing. During Facebook live video streams he gets a lot of shout outs and encouragement: a symbol of the community spirit and common human need to support the wider community in a time of crisis.

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