Statistics New Zealand read me my census code, but let’s not lose sight of the systemic issues

My thanks to everyone who expressed support for my previous blog post about the 2018 census in New Zealand. I’m enough of an optimist to believe that most New Zealanders still think that everyone is entitled to a fair go, and the unanimously positive response I’ve received validates that optimism.

I also learned about the Australian census experience in 2016, which seems more accessible and inclusive than what is happening in New Zealand. Several blind Australians have told me they had no difficulty receiving their census access code via email or SMS. No third-party agency was involved. That’s exactly as it should be.

And indeed, that’s how it is when blind New Zealanders vote accessibly, thanks to the Electoral Commission. The Blind Foundation produces information in accessible formats, but the relationship between a voter and the Electoral Commission remains strictly with the Commission. That’s the model I believe Statistics New Zealand should use in future.

A few hours after I published my previous blog post, I received a message via the contact form on this site from a communications professional at Statistics New Zealand. The message informed me that if I supplied my physical address, someone from the Department would visit my home and read the access code to me. I responded with my address details and cell phone number. This morning, an official from Statistics New Zealand called me to make an appointment and visited just a few minutes ago as I write this.

All the communications I have had with Statistics New Zealand have been professional and courteous, and the people I’ve spoken with seem dedicated and customer-focussed. Sometimes, when we feel frustrated and disempowered about our issues not being taken seriously, as is often the case for blind people in New Zealand, it’s easy to lash out and blame the representative of the entity you’re communicating with. But I believe we must remember that often, such representatives are not policymakers. The people we’re in touch with may well have empathy for a situation that they are powerless to altar. In that regard, I want to thank everyone I’ve come into contact with at Statistics New Zealand for their assistance. To have someone visit me at my home, particularly on a Sunday afternoon during the busy census period, is a genuine good faith effort to try and resolve my issue.

Clearly, I now have no excuse not to complete the census. I have the code, and that’s all I asked for.

I’ve tried never to forget that I am privileged to be on the right side of the digital divide that exists within the blind community. I can also stick up for myself. When my hackles are raised enough, I know how to rattle a cage. I have the skills and the tools to write blog posts like this, and to post to social media. In our socio-economically disadvantaged blind community, that is a rarity. So, while my own issue is resolved, I will not keep quiet about the systemic deficiencies.

I’ve heard from several blind people in the same position as me. They can’t read their codes but could complete the census online if the code were accessible. Even if the argument that accessibility is simply the right thing to do doesn’t hold water in some quarters, what can’t be argued is that having an official from statistics New Zealand visit every blind person who didn’t know about their arrangement with the Blind Foundation to read them a code is not an efficient use of resources.

Another concerning aspect of having officials visit to perform a task that should be easily done by email, text or even phone, is that some people will decline such a visit because they feel it’s putting Statistics New Zealand to too much trouble. I’ve seen many disabled people refuse an accommodation or service because they think there is always someone more deserving than them. An automated process wouldn’t come with that baggage.

One day, perhaps this census episode will be used as an example of how not to make public policy that is disability-aware. Just as it is appropriate that we are culturally sensitive about the way that services are provided to tangata whenua and other minorities who have faced historic discrimination, I believe there are some cultural sensitivity issues surrounding the way that services are provided to disabled people that are often not considered. One of these is client capture by specialist disability providers. People need to appreciate that there was once a time when two residents living in the then Blind Institute’s hostels would have to ask permission to marry. There is a history of paternalism and custodialism around public policy and service provision for the disabled that is still very raw for many. When an entity like Statistics New Zealand tries to delegate its core responsibility to administer the census to a third-party charity that some people may not even use, that lends itself to client capture and alienation. In short, no government entity should be allowed to do this again. Blind people are New Zealanders too. If Government departments are required to provide services to New Zealanders, then that includes blind New Zealanders. Don’t pass the buck to a charity just because we’re blind. It’s wrong.

Appropriate, accessible service provision to disabled people needs to be in the DNA of every Government department. There are plenty of disabled people who can provide advice to the public service. Agencies who provide services, and derive revenue from doing so, have a vested interest. Listen to consumers, not providers, and you’re more likely to get it right more of the time.

In conclusion, I hope all of us, not just disabled people but the many who have spent far more time on this census than should have been necessary will band together to demand a review open to public submissions. Perhaps a Select Committee already does this, in which case, they can be sure of a submission from me. That’s the best way we can all work constructively for a better experience in 2023. I’m afraid too many people have had too many problems for the 2018 census completion process not to be branded a failure.