If you’ve been following my blog posts on the New Zealand census, this one will contain some information you already know.
But now that I have completed the census and there is unlikely to be any further fluidity about the situation, I thought it might be helpful if I publish the text of my complaint to Statistics New Zealand, which I have also copied to the ministers of Statistics and Disability Issues. Having had a few days to think, the text of the complaint is more focused and crystallises the issues.
One of those issues is that I’ve been reminded again just how hard it is for many people to understand information access barriers. If someone can’t physically get into a building, people get that. But because blind people are such a tiny minority, many people don’t even realise that a blind person can use a computer at all. They just don’t understand what’s wrong with having someone read a code to you.
I’ve done my best to explain that further in my complaint letter, which begins now.
To whom it may concern
2018 census accessibility issues
I hereby submit a formal complaint regarding accessibility issues I have experienced as someone who is totally blind pertaining to the 2018 census.
I believe Statistics New Zealand, in its actions and inaction, have fallen short of the Government’s Disability Strategy for an accessible and inclusive New Zealand.
I am seeking an acknowledgement from Statistics New Zealand that the process was inadequate, and I wish to know what specific remedial action will be taken for the next census.
I reserve the right to take the matter, which I view as being of the upmost seriousness given the legal requirement New Zealanders are under to complete the census, to the Ombudsman and if necessary to seek redress under the United Nations Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, to which New Zealand is a signatory.
I am an IT professional who has been totally blind from birth, running my own consultancy company. I’ve designed, or helped design, a number of the assistive technology products blind people worldwide use on a regular basis and am considered an authority on blindness technology.
I do not consider myself helpless. My wife, who is also blind, and I are active members of our community, running a busy household and busy lives.
Blindness hasn’t held me back from achieving all that I’ve wanted to in life. Occasionally, I’m confronted with accessibility barriers, such as that which is the cause of this complaint, 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. Statistics New Zealand created such a barrier with this year’s census, despite ample examples of best practice.
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. There is absolutely no excuse for such neglect from a Government entity.
Chronology of events
On RNZ’s Morning Report program on Friday 2 March, I learned that a census is taking place today, 6 March, and that Statistics New Zealand is seeking to have as many people complete the census online as possible. I fully support this endeavour. 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, email, and text messaging, these would be my preferences for receiving the code, but I hadn’t received any communication relating to the census in any format I could access. 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 could have made 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, http://census.govt.nz, but couldn’t immediately find any information about how a blind person can obtain an access code in an accessible format. I now know that that’s because there was no way I could.
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.
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 to give me information that the call centre staff should have had at their fingertips.
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 the Foundation’s 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.
Troubled by the time and effort I had already taken to get no useful information at all, I published a blog post on Saturday morning, 3 March. A few hours after doing so, I received a message via the contact form on my company’s website from (name redacted) 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.
Although very uncomfortable with this solution for reasons I will outline below, I responded with my address details and cell phone number. On Sunday morning, the Wellington Regional manager for the census called me to make an appointment and visited on Sunday afternoon.
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-focused. I appreciate their efforts.
I can also report that, having been given the code, I was able to complete the process without any issues whatsoever, The online form was fully accessible with screen reading software. I commend the department’s attention to accessible design of the form.
Reasons for my complaint
Lack of clear information
My first concern is that, while very helpful and courteous, I was first given incorrect information about how I might obtain a code in an accessible format, and the second person I spoke with didn’t have any answers available.
I was then not able to find information online about how I might receive a code accessibly.
Had I been able to gain ready access to this information and learned that someone would have to come and read me the code, I wouldn’t have been happy about it, but it would have saved me time.
I submit that this represents a breakdown of training and preparation processes that should be acknowledged and kept in mind for the next census.
Lack of codes in accessible format
I believe Statistics New Zealand has discriminated against me, as defined in the Human Rights Act 1993, by not providing me with a code I can read myself.
Other New Zealanders may have difficulty completing the form on-line and may require printed forms. Or, some New Zealanders may need assistance with completing the form for some other reason.
I have no difficulty completing tasks on websites, and would have been able to complete the entire process effortlessly had provision been made for codes to be provided via email or SMS.
There is ample precedent for this.
During the 2016 census, blind Australians were able to request codes via email or SMS.
Right here at home, blind people can vote thanks to a telephone-based dictation voting system. It requires blind people or anyone with a print disability to complete a statutory declaration over the phone confirming their disability. A code to use the service is then sent via text or email.
If New Zealand’s own Electoral Commission is doing this, and the Government has stated a commitment to accessibility in its Disability Strategy, then why has Statistics New Zealand dropped the ball?
It might be argued that in the end, Statistics New Zealand had someone drive over and read me my code, therefore it has done what it needs to do. I think this comes back to information accessibility being much less well understood than physical accessibility. I’ll draw a parallel.
Let’s say that I use a wheelchair, and I’m unable to enter a public building because the only method of access was a flight of steep stairs. To get around the problem, someone picks me up out of my chair, carries me up the stairs, deposits me on the ground for a moment, goes back and gets the chair, then places me back in it. That’s a work-around, but it hasn’t made the building any more accessible, and it’s not a dignified solution.
Statistics New Zealand has done the equivalent of this in an information context. They worked around the accessibility problem of the census codes by sending someone over to my home to read me a code. There is no practical reason I can think of why that code should not have been accessible to me in the first place.
Third-party agency involvement
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.
I am also troubled by the privacy implications of this suggested remedy. I have not authorized the Blind Foundation to share information about me with Statistics New Zealand, nor have I authorized Statistics New Zealand to give a third-party my access code.
I am seeking the following commitments from Statistics New Zealand for the 2023 census.
- Better briefing of call centre staff so a blind person can be told unambiguously how to obtain a code in a form they can read.
- Availability of codes, directly from Statistics New Zealand, in several accessible formats, at a minimum SMS and email.
- While the Blind Foundation can and should be used to spread the word, a commitment not to involve them in the dissemination of access codes directly.
I will also be seeking a way, perhaps through the State Services Commission or the Office for Disability Issues, to formulate State Sector-wide best practice guidelines on how to manage communications with blind people.