by Helen Holt
Chris Wiberg took over Timaru’s mayoral chains for the day on Monday to celebrate New Zealand Sign Language Week.
The Timaru man is deaf and blind, which means his only way of communicating is hand-on-hand sign language and Braille.
Mr Wiberg sat in the council chambers with Timaru Mayor Nigel Bowen and wife Jane Bowen to raise awareness for New Zealand Sign Language.
Mr Bowen will be contributing visual demonstrations of signed words on the NZSL website throughout this week, as part of the NZSL Leaders’ Challenge
Monday was also a reunion for Mrs Bowen, who has known Mr Wiberg’s family since she was 5.
“As kids we would play the music really loudly and dance, while he clutched the speaker and felt the vibrations. And he loved playing with long hair. He used to always be able to tell who I was by my hair.”
Mr Wiberg’s carer Logan Wilson said his job was very hands-on.
“His hands are pretty much his eyes; they are his way of sensing the world.
“I learnt sign language from working with Chris,” Mr Wilson said.
“When I took him to the shops, I would make him sign out the items.
“It’s easy for nouns, things and objects, but there are small words which are harder, like the word ‘and’ trips me up quite often.
“I spend a lot of time walking backwards because I’m communicating with him at the same time.
“It’s weird because I can’t do normal sign language if people ask me to.”
Mr Wiberg also communicates by using a machine that converts typed words to Braille.
Despite his disability, Mr Wiberg is a very sociable person.
“A lot of people don’t how to say hello, or feel uncomfortable touching him,” Mr Wilson said.
“As New Zealanders, we aren’t really touchy people, which makes things tricky for him. If he had it his way, he would love to hug everyone.”
Mr Wilson has cared for Mr Wiberg for a few hours a week for four years.
He is part of CCS Disability Action, and has cared for 20-30 people throughout his time.
Mr Wiberg learned sign language at the age of 8.
Before that his mother Margaret was the only person who could communicate with him.
“We used to just tap on his head when he was a good boy,” she said.
“Sign language opened up the communication for us.
“We could tell what he liked, what he didn’t like, and he was able to express himself.”
Mr Wiberg is well known around Timaru, and enjoys going to cafes.
Mrs Wiberg said she was very grateful to the support given by the Timaru community.