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How a sign-language interpreter became a symbol of New Zealand’s inclusive response to the Christchurch terror attack

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a ban on all military-style semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles on March 21. (Video: Reuters)

Just before New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern began to speak from behind a lectern in the capital of Wellington on Thursday, a young man positioned himself beside her.

Ardern was there to announce that New Zealand would ban semiautomatic weapons, assault rifles and high-capacity magazines — a decision that came less than a week after a gunman stormed two mosques in Christchurch and fatally shot 50 people.

“On 15 March, our history changed forever. Now, our laws will, too,” Ardern said. “We are announcing action today on behalf of all New Zealanders to strengthen our gun laws and make our country a safer place.”

And Alan Wendt, the man standing beside her, was there to express the same message in sign language.

New Zealand Sign Language is one of the country’s three official languages, along with English and Maori, the language spoken by New Zealand’s indigenous population. According to New Zealand’s human rights commission, individuals in the country have the right to use New Zealand Sign Language or Maori in official court proceedings with interpreters, and Maori is taught in most schools. Maori was made an official language in 1987, and sign language was designated an official language in 2006.

Ardern recognized New Zealand’s Sign Language Week in May when she released a video of herself signing, and she also uses an interpreter for her weekly news conference.

Ardern has been praised for her response to the violent attacks last week that left 50 Muslims dead. She didn’t hesitate to call the attack terrorism, wore a headscarf when meeting with the Muslim community and promised that the government would cover funeral costs for the victims. Then she announced plans to ban the sales of certain weapons.

Observers noticed that Wendt appeared by her side, seen as a way of including the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in her message that New Zealand was truly “united in grief.”

One Twitter user wrote that while watching a sign-language interpreter during New Zealand’s response to the Christchurch attack, “one has to acknowledge this deep sensitivity of the NZ society."

“So impressed by NZ’s inclusivity of having a sign language interpreter at news conferences,” one user wrote.

Others were impressed by his speed in interpretation. “How fast does his brain go?” another wrote.

On Wendt’s Twitter profile, he describes himself as a second-generation Samoan New Zealander and the child of immigrants. In May, he told news outlet TVNZ 1 that when interpreting in sign language, “you don’t want to mimic the person or ape them in any way but you do want to as much as possible transmit how they’re talking and sort of some of the implications behind what they’re saying."

“As an interpreter you need to be able to be flexible enough to move with wherever the conversation’s going,” he said.

This week, that meant grief and gun control.