My oral submission to the Social Services and Community Select Committee on the Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill

Today I gave by far the most difficult submission I’ve ever given to a Parliamentary Select Committee. I want to share it with you. You can read the text, or listen to the audio.

Thank you for the opportunity to share some thoughts and hopefully have a little korero on the Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill. Today I am here as an individual disabled person who has a background in accessibility issues and public policy. I speak only for myself.

I expected to come to this Committee at some point to have a discussion about the dangers of isolating accessibility from other disability rights. What I didn’t expect was to come to the Committee to condemn the most ineffectual and disappointing legislation I have submitted on.

A few months ago, I gave public testimony to the Royal Commission on Abuse in Care about abuse I suffered as a child. That process has changed me in three ways. First, it gave me a new sense of assurance that I am worthy, that I am no less deserving of equality of opportunity than any other New Zealander. This is true of all disabled people. Second, it taught me that even though we’re a small country, even though some disabled people fear being shut out if they’re too outspoken, I must not be afraid to speak my truth, and that I have a right to do so. Third, it reenforced for me that neglect is a form of abuse. Systemic neglect of disabled people is rampant in New Zealand, and an opportunity to address one key area of neglect has been squandered. By choosing not to provide for the creation of measurable standards and a reasonable timeframe for their enforcement, the Government has neglected a quarter of the population, continuing our exclusion from a wide range of goods, services, jobs, accommodation and experiences and confining us to an inferior quality of life. This is a monumental economic and moral failure. Neglect is abuse, the Royal Commission has made that clear. Like discrimination, abuse can be unintentional and systemic, but it’s abuse, nonetheless. To the Government, I say this. We trusted you to use your majority to make real change, but you gave us a powerless committee. We wanted more action, but you gave us more talk and tokenism. We asked for specific ways to measure the removal of accessibility barriers, and you gave us an annual report with the faint prospect of real progress in five years, maybe. Yet why should we trust you not to do to us after five more years what you’ve done to us after all the talk of the last five? We wanted an end to the exclusion and the isolation, but you have thrown us under the inaccessible bus. New Zealand signed an international convention on the rights of disabled people that specifically requires accessibility standards, and you have ignored it, setting us up for yet another embarrassing but well-deserved international reprimand. To Parliament as a whole, I point out that it’s an unfair, uphill struggle, because no party puts strong advocates from the disability community in winnable positions on their party list. So the House of Representatives has no one with direct experience of the struggles I face every day because of barriers that could be removed with a proactive standards-based framework. There is no way that such lacklustre legislation would ever be permitted to come before this Committee if the House included strong disability voices.

We never know when disability will come. It often comes as we age. It might come unexpectedly because of an accident or medical condition. But of this I am certain. Disability will come to some of those responsible for this kicking the can down the road. The hurt and the harm this process causes me today could be the hurt and the harm it causes you at some future time. I take no pleasure in pointing that out, but that is the nature of disability. The time for platitudes, the time for claiming we need more data, the time for thinking we can be placated by any old thing calling itself accessibility legislation, the time for telling us that our turn will come, has long past. We are a quarter of the population, and we will vote. We need standards, and their development needs to start now because the process will take years.

For reasons outlined in my written submission, those standards are best incorporated in new, consequential disability rights legislation, not accessibility legislation. Take disability out of the Human Rights Act and create a new disability rights Act and entity. The Regulatory Impact Statement claims “We already have a strong human rights framework.” That demonstrates how few disabled people have been consulted. Many people find the mediation process inadequate and imbalanced, and the option for further redress complex. The Human Rights Commission do a brilliant job with the tools they have, but the framework is not strong, not compared with effective jurisdictions overseas. If there were one entity disabled people could go to that processed individual disability discrimination complaints and could then feed that data into the creation of accessibility standards where appropriate, it would minimise confusion and maximise effectiveness.

Even if there is debate about who should create and enforce them, there is I believe an overwhelming consensus in the disability community that a regulator with standards is essential. For this reason, I urge the Committee to withdraw this Bill, and have Whaikaha begin the first truly thorough, inclusive process on this topic that we will have had. Yes, it will take time, but if this Bill were withdrawn, we will have lost nothing of consequence. If this bill passes, we may have lost the opportunity for impactful reform for a generation, and who knows when the rights of disabled people will come before Parliament again. Please, withdraw this Bill, then explore the full range of options, including disability rights legislation. We are not in the Cabinet room and not even in any caucus room so we are an easy group to sacrifice when political expediency is required, but that makes the need for this Committee to discard the politics and govern with compassion and empathy all the more important.