Text of my remarks to the Governance and Administration Select Committee on the need for a public inquiry into New Zealand’s 2018 census
I have blogged previously about the difficulties I had obtaining an access code for completing New Zealand’s 2018 census online.
The issue is important in itself given that completing the census is compulsory for everyone in the country on census day, but it also illustrates a lack of commitment by many state-sector entities to accessibility.
For this reason, I launched a Parliamentary petition calling for an inquiry into the census. If you signed it, thank you.
My petition was referred to the Governance and Administration Select Committee, and I appeared before it today. Here’s the text of my remarks.
Remarks delivered to the Governance and Administration Select Committee, 19 September 2018
Mr Chairman, members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today.
When I was offered several dates to present to you, and I learned that 19 September was an option, I chose today for its symbolism. Women’s suffrage day reminds New Zealanders of our proud legacy of inclusion and egalitarianism. Yet when it comes to inclusivity for blind people, we fall far short of many western countries with which we like to compare ourselves. Not only can I as a blind person not see you, far too often, New Zealanders don’t see us. There hasn’t been a blind member of this house since the 1920s, despite a blind person in Britain having risen to the position of Home Secretary. There are few blind people in positions of influence in New Zealand, and none that I am aware of in mainstream media positions. Estimates are that 70% of working aged blind people in western countries are out of work, largely because of fear and misunderstanding on the part of sighted employers who don’t realise that a fulfilling life is possible without sight and that blind people are capable employees. It is easier for me to travel on public transport in American or British cities I’ve never visited before than it is in any New Zealand city.
Little wonder then that because we’re so out of sight, we’re often out of mind.
My petition calls for an inquiry into the 2018 census. I’ve no doubt members will have already been contacted by frustrated constituents, many of whom are on the wrong side of the digital divide. Completing the census is compulsory, so, understandably, problems completing it can be a cause of fear and stress.
In theory, I should be on the right side of the digital divide. I’m an IT professional who has embraced technology, having written many books on the subject. I’ve played a part in the design, maintenance and marketing of some of the world’s leading assistive technology products. I use technology to the max to mitigate the information access barriers of blindness.
During the last few census processes, Statistics New Zealand has done an excellent job of ensuring that the online census form is accessible to screen reading software, which speaks, or displays in Braille, what’s on the screen of a smartphone or computer. That’s meant that I’ve been able to complete the census independently.
While some people who’ve never learned to use, or can’t afford, a computer felt stressed because they could read their census code but not complete the form online, my situation was the opposite. When I finally got to the online form, it was once again a snap for me to complete it, but getting the code was a disempowering experience that made me feel devalued as a blind New Zealander.
The thing that made this year’s census a nightmare for me was that rather than someone coming to the door to deliver census-related information, at which point I would simply ask the person who delivered the information to read me my online code so I could write it down on an accessible device, this year’s code came in the mail, as a standard print letter. I have an app on my iPhone that will take a picture of a document and speak it to me, but it was thrown off by the te reo Maori at the top of the letter, and I wasn’t able to read the code.
When this happened to me, I viewed it as a glitch that could probably be fixed with a quick phone call to the right person. My confidence stemmed from the fact that last year, I was able to vote in the general election by telephone. The Electoral Commission was able to text me a code which I used on a special phone line available to those who couldn’t use the standard voting form. The system incorporated several checks and balances to ensure that I could have confidence that my vote was cast according to my preference. I figured that if a code for voting, the most sacred right and obligation a citizen has, could be made accessible, then surely Statistics New Zealand would be able to text me my census code. It’s also how it’s done for blind people in the Australian census.
However, Statistics New Zealand declined to text me my code, siting a security risk, ultimately sending someone to my house to read me my code. I was troubled by the lack of accessibility built into the process, and by the inefficiency of someone having to visit my house on a Sunday afternoon when there’s no technical reason why the code couldn’t have been generated in an accessible format.
Let me expand on that point, because it illustrates the needless absurdity of what I was put through. My census code started life on a computer. That’s how the code was generated, at which point, given that it was a series of letters and numbers stored on a machine, it was fully accessible to blind people with screen reading software. It was then printed out on a piece of paper. It was the process of moving it from the electronic to the physical that turned something that was once accessible into something inaccessible.
I’d like to examine Statistics New Zealand’s use of security as an excuse for its inaccessible practices. This really boils down to a simple, critical question. Given that things often get lost in the mail, and that it’s not unheard of for people to go foraging in other people’s mailboxes, who is right, the Electoral Commission who is OK about texting me my code to vote, or Statistics New Zealand, who says such a process is too insecure? Surely, it’s a failure of public policy that two government entities have such polar opposite positions. It’s my view that, given that kindred agencies clearly don’t have a problem, Statistics New Zealand is playing the good old security card as an excuse for its lack of inclusivity. When it comes to accessibility, security is often trotted out as a nebulous excuse for not doing the right thing. When I first raised the need for talking ATMs with the New Zealand banking industry, their first reaction was that it couldn’t be done for security reasons. Now, they’re ubiquitous.
But let’s say Statistics New Zealand are right, other government entities including their Australian statistician counterparts are wrong, and texting is insecure. Why not use RealMe? It was designed to provide a high level of checks and balances, and multiple methods of authentication. In 2018, there’s simply no excuse for the generation of inaccessible material.
I found out later that Statistics New Zealand had partnered with the Blind Foundation, a good organisation whose services I don’t presently require, but that partnership ended several weeks before census day. Since I’m not a Blind Foundation service user at present, I had no knowledge of this partnership until I discovered that my census code was inaccessible, by which time it was too late for me to take advantage of it anyway.
While Statistics New Zealand has apologised to me for their accessibility oversight and promised to do better next time, and of course I accept that apology, they don’t agree with me that it’s inappropriate to out-source their legal obligations for administering the census to the Blind Foundation, thereby subjecting blind people to segregation, making them go through a different process from other New Zealanders. I hope the Committee can see the irony in the fact that while Statistics New Zealand refused to provide me with my own census code in an accessible format due to supposed security risks, they were quite happy providing some blind people’s census codes to a third-party at the Blind Foundation, a move that I view as a serious privacy breach. I’m certainly not the only blind person deeply uncomfortable with this. It’s an abdication of responsibility by Statistics New Zealand. Blind people shouldn’t have to be the recipients of unrelated blindness services just to have a chance of getting our census code in a format we can use. When I called the census hotline, I was presented with a menu of choices where I could speak with operators in a range of languages, which is fantastic, and exactly how it should be. It is a pretty telling commentary on the place of blind and other disabled people in New Zealand society that the menu didn’t include the ability to talk to an accessibility specialist.
My story is not unique, it’s illustrative, which is why I respectfully request this Committee to conduct a public inquiry. When I posted to my blog about my census difficulties, and that post was picked up by the media, I was contacted by people who felt genuinely frightened by what might happen if they couldn’t complete the census. They knew people have been fined for not doing so in the past. For people in this country to be fearful of prosecution because of a botched public sector process is in my view appalling. I even seriously considered being in Australia on census day as a form of protest. I didn’t do that, because I believe blind people should count in public policy formulation and be counted in the census. Instead, I decided to come to Parliament, and seek intervention and redress from our elected representatives. I earn a good living and I pay my taxes. I believe that creates a social contract. In return for my taxes, I like to think that government institutions value me as a citizen and that as a nation, we’re committed to creating a society where all citizens, yes, the blind ones too, are included, have their dignity respected and live in a country that allows them to maximise their potential.
In conclusion, I urge the Committee to conduct a public inquiry into the census. I also hope that you can see that there is no consistency about accessibility best practice in this country. We have the Electoral Commission, which has been exemplary, and Statistics New Zealand, who can’t even keep up with their mates in Australia when it comes to accessibility. If we don’t implement consistent, fair state-sector-wide accessibility practices, this will happen again. Maybe Statistics New Zealand has learned from the experience, I hope so. At least something worthwhile would have come of my frustrating experience and subsequent advocacy. But without clear guidelines, I can tell you, it will happen again somewhere.
On suffrage day, there seems no better time to reflect on how we could, and must, be better than this.