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Ara graduate heads to World Deaf Congress

Inspiring other Deaf youth to do whatever they want to do is the motivation behind Jorja Steele’s successful bid to attend the upcoming World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) youth camp and Congress in South Korea.

Inspiring other Deaf youth to do whatever they want to do is the motivation behind Jorja Steele’s successful bid to attend the upcoming World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) youth camp and Congress in South Korea.

The 19-year-old graduate of Ara | Te Pūkenga, who uses NZ Sign Language, says she thinks other Deaf youth should “realise they are not limited and that they can do things that they might think they can’t do.  For example, I could study at a place like Ara, something I never thought was possible at high school.  It’s not so hard - after a while, I realised I could manage it and be independent. And now, I’m going to this international youth camp and conference.”

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Steele graduated from Ara | Te Pūkenga with a Diploma in Business.

When Steele walked across the stage to her collect her degree in March’s graduation ceremony, the audience clapped using NZSL to celebrate her success.

To be selected to represent New Zealand at the World Congress, Steele had to create a video explaining what the theme “Yesterday, today and tomorrow” means to her.

“For me,” said Steele through an interpreter, “yesterday is about making mistakes and living life, today is about learning from those mistakes and using them as opportunities, and tomorrow is about using the learnings from yesterday to make our lives better.”

The Deaf Aotearoa Youth Board agreed that this, and other points Steele made in her video about her representing New Zealand Deaf youth, won her a place along with three other New Zealand Deaf youth to attend both the international events.  

The four-yearly World Congress offers opportunities for Deaf people to discuss and learn about deaf studies, linguistic changes, Deaf culture, political advocacy and other topics, as well as networking with people from the international Deaf community.  

“Our experience as Deaf people is vital,” Steele said. “I want to share some of that knowledge and experience with a larger group of people, and to be with young people who are Deaf, but who come from entirely different cultures from mine.”

After attending Ara in the School of Business, Steele feels more independent and confident. While she had an in-class interpreter for her classes, the expectations of tertiary education helped her develop the confidence to try things alone and fed into her emerging sense of identity as a Deaf person.

“I used to be sort of nervous about being Deaf, but now it’s become part of my identity.  I feel so much more confident to step out and do new things, and to know that I’ll be fine on my own.”

Steele believes that some people do not consider Sign Language to be a “proper language” and she wants to learn more about these perspectives and how to advocate for the language. “I don’t think many people are aware of Deaf people's experiences, which is why it's important to educate people about us and the way we communicate.”


Steele, centre, uses NZ Sign Language every day to communicate with both her Deaf and hearing friends, so she’s surprised that some people believe it’s not a "proper" language.

She notes that “New Zealand’s Deaf population is small and isolated.  We often lack contact with each other because there aren’t a lot of opportunities to meet other Deaf people, except for occasional camps and meetings.”

She also sees a lot of other Deaf youth struggling to find employment, with communication being the most challenging issue. Although she works full-time as a cleaner, Steele said she would “love to be a nurse, but I worry that communication with the patients would be a barrier.” 

Addressing the lack of opportunities, poor understandings of Deaf people’s experiences and languages, and other issues affecting Deaf youth are just part of the excitement that is building for Steele as she prepares to head overseas.

“Having fun at camp and connecting with other Deaf people is what I’m especially excited about!“

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