Blind people should count. My run-around with Statistics New Zealand, and how they’re making me a criminal.

Note, there is a follow-up post which I wrote the day after this one was published. You’ll find a link to it at the end of this one.

Tuesday, 6 March, is census day in New Zealand. The law says that everybody living in or visiting New Zealand on that day must complete a census form. Those who don’t could be fined under the Statistics Act.

Although I’m not conscious of having broken a law before, I will do what it takes, including being in breach of the Statistics Act, to fight for my belief that I am just as entitled to direct assistance from Statistics New Zealand to accommodate my needs as other minorities who have been well accommodated.

Not only is the story I’m about to relate appalling in itself, its symptomatic of how far disabled people have to go in New Zealand before our needs are given equal consideration with other minorities.

I’m sure some people reading this post normally don’t read what I write, so let me give you some brief background about me. I am an IT professional, running my own consultancy company. You’re on its website now. I’m also a husband and dad, and a disability rights advocate having been totally blind since birth. Blindness hasn’t held me back from achieving all that I’ve wanted to in life. Occasionally, I’m confronted with accessibility barriers that are usually avoidable. It’s similar to the experience a wheelchair user has when they go to a building and can’t gain access, except my barriers aren’t physical, they’re information-related.

In today’s digital age, where pretty much all written information starts life on a word processor, most information accessibility issues are due to ignorance or wilful neglect.

On RNZ’s Morning Report program on Friday, I learned that a census is taking place on 6 March, and that Statistics New Zealand is seeking to have as many people complete the census online as possible. For me, online is far better than print. My computer and smartphone have technology that allows me to hear or read in Braille what’s on the screen of my device. When a site is designed appropriately, the web is a liberating place, affording independent information access. From shopping, to reading the newspaper, to online banking, it has changed my world for the better. I’ve completed the census online before, so I was confident that the website would be accessible. My only question was how do I find my access code? In the past, with census forms being hand-delivered, the person delivering the form has told me the code and I wrote it down on an accessible device. That’s not an option this year because the code is being sent by letter, not hand-delivered.

As someone who uses Braille and email, these would be my preferences for receiving the code, but I hadn’t received any communication relating to the census in either format. So, it was time for plan B. I have technology on my computer and cell phone that will read printed material to me, thanks to optical character recognition. Sometimes it can take a while to do it, so I usually set aside some time in the weekend to go through the printed mail that has accumulated during the week. But having heard about the census, I decided to take the initiative and see whether a letter containing an access code had been mailed to me. I found it, but because there is some Te Reo Maori at the top of the document, it was confusing my optical character recognition software which couldn’t recognise the language. In short, I knew that I had found the printed letter containing my access code but couldn’t read the code.

Even if I can make the code readable somehow, there are many people who don’t have access to such OCR technology, but are still capable of completing the form online if they can get the code in an accessible format.

The reverse side of the letter, which contained a list of frequently asked questions, read perfectly. It informed me of the Census website, and the toll-free number to call for help.

I searched the website but couldn’t immediately find any information about how a blind person can get an access code in an accessible format.

I called the phone line and was immediately impressed that non-English-speaking help was also available. If they are this inclusive, I felt sure they’d be able to help me out.

When my call was answered, I explained that I was a blind person who could complete the form independently via the web, but my access code had not been provided in a format accessible to me. The person I spoke with on the helpline told me that if I chose the option to request a new code, and included my email address, I would receive the code via email. This seemed a reasonable way to provide an accessible solution, so this I duly did. Normally, processes like that are automated and instant, so having not received a code after a few minutes, I called the helpline back again and spoke with someone else. He informed me that the first person I had spoken with was mistaken, and that there was no way to receive the access code electronically.

I was shocked, surprised, and disappointed. If you can call the toll-free number and request printed forms, it’s reasonable to expect that you can also call the toll-free number and request an access code in an electronic format. I appreciate that there may be some security risks, but I took the time to sign up to the Government’s identity service, RealMe, some time ago. I figured if there were security concerns, these could be mitigated by using RealMe.

He said he thought he had heard that the Blind Foundation was providing codes to blind people on CD. He didn’t know anything specific about this though, so he took my name and number, escalated my inquiry to what he called “higher ups”, and flagged it as urgent. He couldn’t have been more helpful. It is hardly his fault that he wasn’t provided with the tools to resolve my issue.

By the end of the day, Friday, no one had returned my call.

I then did some Google searching, and found one single reference to the Blind Foundation providing access codes verbally. There was no information given as to how I should obtain the access code.

Asking a couple of friends of mine who are also blind caused them to forward me a message from the Blind Foundation, which I did not receive due, I suspect, to seldom using their services, stating that someone would phone with a code if you registered before 21 February. You had to phone the Blind Foundation, not Statistics New Zealand, to do so. My wife Bonnie, who is also blind, didn’t receive any such communication either.

My first concern is that I had to spend a lot of time to find out how I might obtain an access code in a form I can use because helpline staff were not briefed properly, only to find I am apparently too late. Others can still request printed forms, but I can’t call the help line to request a code.

Even if that weren’t the case, I consider that solution unacceptable.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that I can call the helpline and ask for an accessible version of the code from Statistics New Zealand themselves, not from a third-party.

The Blind Foundation is one organisation, admittedly by far the largest in New Zealand, which provides rehabilitation and support services to blind New Zealanders who need them. At present, I don’t need them. I’ve been blind all my life, and there are no services from the Blind Foundation, apart perhaps from the occasional book, that I require. I understand why an entity like Statistics New Zealand might contract with the Blind Foundation to produce material in alternative formats, such as audio and Braille. That’s not a core competency for Statistics New Zealand. But it’s not appropriate for Statistics New Zealand to shirk its responsibilities to be accessible to, and inclusive of everyone, by delegating a core function of the census process to a charity that not all blind people use regularly and are not in touch with regularly.

Blind people left the institutions and the workshops long ago. We’re not some problem that can be fobbed off to another organisation and forgotten about, and there is no single organisation responsible for all blind people. We’re citizens who have the right to expect equal treatment when we phone a Government help line for something as critical as the census. To say that you can only complete the census accessibly if you contact one particular provider of blindness services is no different from saying even if you always shop at New World, you must go to Countdown to complete the census.

I have never knowingly broken a law in my life. But the principles here are fundamental to the civil rights of disabled people in New Zealand, particularly in a situation where non-compliance is a breach of the law.

Unless Statistics New Zealand provide me with the code, then I will wilfully not be completing the census.

I suppose I have the option of being out of New Zealand on 6 March. Maybe a quick trip to Aussie is in my future, so I can boycott the Census without breaking the law. It’s a sad situation where I must contemplate being a refugee from my own country to make a critical point about the need for Government to own its responsibilities.

I will also explore other remedies including the Human Rights Commission and the Ombudsman.

As many civil rights advocates have proven in the past, there are just some issues on which you must take a stand.

I appreciate that much of the preparatory work for the census will have been done during the tenure of the previous government. I urge the Minister for Disability Issues, Carmel Sepuloni, and the Minister for Statistics, James Shaw, to intervene and make this right.

I would also appreciate your support on Twitter. Please contact those in authority who should be aware of this, and to coordinate our actions, use the hashtag #BlindPeopleCount.


Read my follow-up post, Statistics New Zealand read me my census code, but let’s not lose site of the systemic issues.