Image of Able Chief Executive Dan Buckingham speaking at the Listen Up conference. Standing behind him is NZSL interpreter Kelley Hodgins translating his presentation.

On Friday 3rd of March 2023, a few people from the Able team attended the Listen Up conference which had returned to in-person attendance after a long hiatus due to COVID-19. Held at Auckland Transport’s office building in downtown Auckland, the conference had a range of brilliant speakers and presenters with the MC being the well-known broadcaster Hilary Barry – invited back by popular demand from the last in-person Listen Up conference held in 2019.

The National Foundation for Deaf and Hard of Hearing (NFDHH) Chief Executive Natasha Gallardo welcomed all attendees and spoke about her own lived experience of deafness. The goals and aims of the NFDHH as a charity advocating for equal access to education around and prevention of hearing loss for all New Zealanders were a key theme in her presentation and throughout the conference.

The fantastic Deaf youth activist and advocate Hope Cotton spoke passionately about the need for d/Deaf children to have full access to education and the wider world as well as her own experience of deafness. She spoke about missing out on crucial parts of her education due to ignorance and lack of knowledge about deafness, to meeting Deaf students at Ko Taku Reo Otautahi and beginning her journey of learning New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). I very much see Hope going on to achieve highly in her future endeavours.

One of the other presentations was from Dan Buckingham, Chief Executive of Able. The audience learnt about Dan’s journey navigating the world as a disabled person after an accident, and his outlook on the future of accessibility within Aotearoa for disabled people. Dan’s presentation was highly engaging and he spoke passionately about accessibility and the need for people to not look at those who are disabled or become disabled with pity, as illustrated by his example of a drab and depressing stock image of a man in a wheelchair when searching for images that represent the word “disabled”, but to look at disabled people as people like themselves who simply have to navigate the world in a way that is adapted for their needs.

Arash Tayebi, CEO of Kara Technologies spoke about Kara’s work to bring NZSL fully into the visual and digital realm through the use of avatars. Arash studied in Melbourne before moving to Aotearoa and studying at Auckland University where he won a grant to start a business which became Kara Technologies. Arash spoke about the early days of Kara Technologies and learning about sign language. He also spoke about his experience of presenting a prototype version of the signing avatars to the wider Deaf community to which the feedback was that the avatars were not useful as despite the signing being represented visually, the facial expressions – a key grammatical component of many sign languages around the world – were notably lacking. After learning more in depth about the nuances of NZSL as well as bringing on a Deaf employee to Kara Technologies, Arash returned to the Deaf community with much improved avatars that had a more dynamic range and ability of facial expressions which were developed using motion capture technology. Looking to the future, Arash hopes the signing avatars are used in situations where sign language interpreters are unable to be present at short notice, such as late night emergency press conferences from the government, or other situations where digital means of using sign language can be used such as the drive through menu and self-service kiosks at fast food restaurants. Kara Technologies is also receiving plenty of domestic and international interest, having translated a few children’s books into NZSL using avatars and some American Sign Language organisations from the US exploring the possibility of using the avatars for ASL.

The very last presentation was by one of the New Zealand Sign Language interpreters, Kelly Hodgins. Kelly spoke about her journey as an interpreter and more recently, setting up Platform Interpreting New Zealand (PINZ), a company which specialises in interpreting for theatre and stage productions, concerts, and festivals. To conclude her presentation, Kelly performed a NZSL interpretation of a song which she taught to the audience who all joined in on signing the song together. This was greatly enjoyed by all in the audience, a much needed opportunity to stand up and move around a little, and a fantastic way to close the conference.

The 2023 Listen Up conference was enjoyed by all of the Able team who attended and it was a pleasure to attend the conference in person after a long hiatus and delays due to covid. Being Deaf myself, it was insightful and eye-opening to learn about the work that the people mentioned in this article are doing, and despite already knowing about some of the work that they do, having it explained in-depth to a general audience really highlighted to me how important their work is. I look forward to seeing and learning about what the panellists go on to achieve in the future.

Ngā mihi nui to the team at National Foundation for Deaf and Hard of Hearing for their mahi organising this event!

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