Signs of Strength: Celebrating Deaf Employees During Sign Language Week


Taranaki transport professionals Chris Waite and Joe Emanual forged a great friendship through work when they both realised they shared deafness in common.

This week is New Zealand Sign Language Week, Aotearoa, New Zealand's annual celebration of one of our three official languages.

The week aims to break down barriers and get hearing people excited about learning a bit of sign language, all with the aim of creating a more inclusive society.

Hoppy Hopkins and Chris Waite at Fonterra Whareroa Site. Watch Chris explain how he conducts his morning DMS meeting with the team

Brent (Hoppy) Hopkins, Depot Manager at Fonterra Whareroa, describes Chris Waite, a tanker operator, as one of his 'best drivers' due to his heightened senses and resilience in entering and thriving in the transport profession. There was some initial apprehension, but after completing the risk assessment, it was realised that there was nothing preventing Chris from joining the team.

Joe Emmanual contracts to Fonterra through Symons Group, and Hoppy said he has spent a good deal of time at the Whareroa site due to the close business connection.

"These guys are really hardworking and dedicated. Bringing Chris into the team was a great decision; his performance on the job has consistently exceeded expectations."

"It's just that our ears don't work," Chris and Joe laughed. "It's not a disability, but more like speaking a different language or having a different culture."

"Anyone who is deaf can do it; you just have to put in the work and show you are keen to turn up."

New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) and British Sign Language (BSL) are the first languages of these Taranaki mates, both of whom were born fully deaf.

The visit was interpreted by Scott Hamilton from New Zealand iSign. When asked how he got into the profession of an interpreter, he replied,

"I was an engineer by trade and decided I wanted a career change. I had seen someone doing NZSL as an interpreter, so I went out and did a night course and went from there. It has been the most remarkable journey, and I have met so many amazing people along the way."

Joe Emanuel and Chris Waite deaf transport professionals

It's not a disability, but more like speaking a different language or having a different culture. Anyone who is deaf can do it; you just have to put in the work and show you are keen to turn up.

Chris Waite, tanker operator, FOnterra

Scott Hamilton from iSign interpreting for the day

But it is not just Chris, Joe, and Scott that we had the pleasure of meeting; Chanelle Waite, Chris's wife, was with us on the day too. An advocate and influencer in the deaf community, she helps those in the deaf community navigate the challenges they face day to day and teaches sign through her successful social media channels, one on TikTok and one on Facebook – both handles @signwithchaz, and with a home business in photography. She attributes her love of the language and enthusiasm to help others get involved to her father.

"He was always at my school asking for more to be done to help my learning journey, raising awareness, and building support to get facilities for deaf students."

"Many of the amazing facilities that my school implemented, I missed out on as I had moved on by the time they were established, but I am proud of the work Dad and I did to make change for others following me."

Chris grew up in Stratford, and Chanelle in New Plymouth, but they knew each other from attending ‘Keep In Touch’ days, which are get-togethers organized by teachers of the deaf for students in mainstream classes and schools.

After leaving school, they lost touch, but a few years later, Chanelle was in Christchurch one day shopping with a friend and noticed someone drive past and flash their car lights at her, which she thought odd.

"I saw the person signing my name through the window."

Then, she recognized Chris, and they arranged to meet up.

"The rest is history, and here we are, with three amazing boys," she said.

The couple has three sons, Noah, 14, Lance, 13, and Josh, 9, all of whom are hearing but have sign as their first language, Chris said.

The Waite Family

"Their first words were in sign. Then they started to develop spoken language from family members as they grew up and went to school."

These four people who are making strides for change in the deaf community believe there shouldn't be any roadblocks for those who are deaf or hearing impaired.

Chris, one of about 170 drivers, communicates with his dispatcher and colleagues using the dispatch screen in the cab, text messages, and photos.

"Not only does Chris excel in his role, but he also goes over and above to help me with health and safety. For example, he is vigilant in sending me photos of hazards, so that I can work more efficiently to sort these out. He’s my eyes on the road," says Steve Anderson H&S Transport Whareroa. 

"Because he is so visual, he misses nothing. My job is made easier due to Chris."

"I am proud to work for a Co-op that sees diversity as a strength."

According to the 2018 New Zealand Census, 7,647 people in New Zealand are unable to hear at all, and 55,221 have significant difficulty hearing. However, the National Foundation for the Deaf estimates that 880,350 people in New Zealand, or 18.9% of the population, have some form of hearing loss.