Childcare Abuse: Deaf Children Beaten for Not Lip-Reading and Denied Sign Language

Whiti Ronaki testified about her experiences at the Kelston School for the Deaf as a child.

Sapeer Mayron / Stuff

Whiti Ronaki testified about her experiences at the Kelston School for the Deaf as a child.

A school designed for deaf children has been repeatedly exposed for historic student abuse.

Whiti Ronaki (Te Arawa) was 6 years old when he first entered Kelston School for the Deaf, in 1959. Instead of learning sign language and receiving a primary education, he was slapped and forced to brush their teeth with soap. .

Ronaki has been bullied by other students, abused by staff, and suffered from teachers trying to force students to read lips.

Ronaki was speaking Monday morning at Royal Commission into the Abuse of Persons in Care, during a two-week hearing focused on the experiences of the Deaf, among others.

* Abuse in care: Beaten with a belt for using sign language, denied his Maori culture
* Abuse during treatment: the survivor became a “chemical stain” after excessive medication
* Abuse in Care: A Brother’s 60-Year Fight for Justice

Now 68, Ronaki lost his hearing to meningitis when he was young. His adoptive parents drank heavily. His adoptive father beat him often, sometimes with a broomstick, and he regularly slept under the house or outside in the trees to avoid his father. Moving to Kelston meant sleeping in his first bed, he said.

His parents barely spoke to him – he was left to wander alone, friendless and deaf, ignored. So when he was finally sent to a school that was supposed to be designed for deaf children, it should have been a safe haven.

Instead, he was subjected to continuous physical, emotional and sexual abuse by staff and other students. He was denied sign language and was forced – unsuccessfully – to learn lip-reading, which he hated.

Teachers would tell students to “watch me, watch my lips” and smack students’ mouths when they couldn’t accurately read what was being said.


Assistant Attorney Ruth Thomas is leading the hearing into abuse in care facilities for the disabled, deaf and mentally ill.

Ronaki also faced racism there: Maori children were given soap instead of toothpaste, and there was no teaching of tikanga or Maori sign language to speak of.

Speaking in New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), he said this urgently needed to be addressed for today’s children – Maoritanga and Tikanga should be part of their upbringing and language of signs too.

Another witness who attended Kelston on Friday testified about the same kinds of abuse as Ronaki — from sign language bans to soapy toothbrushes.

Kelston Deaf Education Center in Auckland.

Royal Commission into Child Abuse

Kelston Deaf Education Center in Auckland.

Around 2005, he actually moved back to Kelston Deaf Village, to work as a caregiver, and bring deaf and maori culture and art to children (Kelston Deaf Education Center in Auckland and the Van Asch Deaf Education Center in Christchurch merged in 2019 to become Ko Taku Reo).

“There are so many hearing teachers in deaf education. They say I know what I’m doing, but they have to follow what the deaf need, and it is to sign.”

There is still a lack of Maori staff at Ko Taku Reo, and there is still no solid teaching of te reo Maori sign language, Ronaki said. There are also not enough te reo Māori sign language interpreters.

“When I sign, I include Maori concepts and mix them with English,” he explained. “When I do karakia on the marae, I sign in te reo. It must be pronounced in te reo by the interpreter.

“The kids still come home for the holidays…they tell me that when they come home no one talks to them because their parents don’t know sign language.”

The hearing continues. Another survivor of abuse in Kelston is scheduled to testify Monday afternoon.

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