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Disability rights – back to basics

Last Saturday, December 3, was International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

This event, spearheaded by the United Nations, aims to “promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilise support for the dignity, rights and wellbeing of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society”.

About 15 per cent of the world’s population identifies as disabled – including a quarter of New Zealanders.

The theme for this year’s event was “Transformative solutions for inclusive development: the role of innovation in fuelling an accessible and equitable world.” Seminars were held on using technological advances to improve outcomes for disabled people in employment, sport, and communities.

Innovation has its place in transforming lives. We have seen this play out with the invention of assistive communication technology, speech recognition software, and braille smartphones.

Amazing mahi. But I wonder … are we putting the cart before the horse? Should we be focused on innovating our way towards accessibility when we’re falling behind on the most common-sense solutions?

A 2020 survey by accessibility advocacy group Be Lab. found “fundamental areas of public life”, such as education, access to outdoor spaces, and transport, were rated poorly by disabled Kiwis. More than half of respondents said they were unable to participate in activities such as shopping, going to cafés, and attending sports events.

In Aotearoa, most of our housing stock is unsuitable for disabled tenants – with some having to shower on their front deck, due to inaccessible bathrooms.

Public spaces are largely inaccessible. Last weekend, 1News reported that a young Northland woman was excluded from her gym due to a lack of disabled shower facilities – which the manager was unwilling to implement.

Stats NZ data found disabled people earn less than half the weekly income of their non-disabled counterparts. Fifty-three companies employ a Minimum Wage Exemption, allowing them to pay disabled people lower rates based on “lower productivity”. Despite recent studies finding disabled workers have higher productivity and better attendance than their able-bodied colleagues.

Disabled Kiwis are more likely to be victims of violence – disabled women, for example, are almost twice as likely to experience intimate partner violence than non-disabled women.

There are common-sense solutions to all of the above. Incorporating Universal Design principles in our building. Raising core benefits. Scrapping Minimum Wage exemptions. Specific funding for violence prevention. Enforceable standards for public accessibility.

Our elected officials are lukewarm on the first two things, and have made only vague noises about progressing the third. Disabled people were excluded from recent funding for Te Aorerekura – the government’s strategy to eliminate family violence. The long-awaited Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill does not include mandatory accessibility standards or dispute resolution processes for accessibility barriers – rendering it largely toothless.

And we want to talk about innovation when we can’t even seem to uphold simple human rights?

We have made some strides. For example, establishing the Ministry for the Disabled [Whaikaha], councils adopting accessibility action plans, incorporating New Zealand Sign Language within media, and introducing the Accessibility Charter – stating government information must be communicated in alternate formats [such as Sign Language, braille and large print].

As always, however, there is much more to do. Right now, one million New Zealanders are struggling to navigate their own homes, excluded from the workplace, vulnerable to violence, and unable to participate fully in their communities. And that’s not good enough.

There’ll always be a time for new technology. But let’s get the basics right first, shall we?

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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