Keeping Promises Important for Disability Community Leaders

Recently, a friend linked me to an article that discusses the portrayal of disability in literature – and it got me thinking about the importance of disability community leaders being progressive and true to its promises.

Reading headlines like “Ardern’s broken promise to the disability community” on Scoop.co.nz might be true for one portion of the community, but entirely untrue for another.

In reality, continuing the current way of doing things will lead to similar results over the course of the next decade, or even longer. Promises must be kept, but that doesn’t just go for the politicians, it goes for the disability community leaders also.

Sometimes I wonder, however, just what that promise and subsequent direction actually is. I hear a lot, and most of it often conflicts with what other groups within the community are saying and/or doing.

That’s not to say the tide isn’t slowly turning or that considerably good outcomes haven’t been achieved already, because nothing could be further from the truth.

Just look at Enabling Good Lives, Disability Pride Week, or the recent Accessibility Concession in the Waikato that provides free public transport for people with disabilities. These three outcomes alone were built on the back of disabled people, their families and the sectors’ leadership working hard and working together.

Keeping Promises Important for Disability Community Leaders

Change, especially societal change, doesn’t happen quickly. It takes years, sometimes decades to achieve. When you add the service providers, governance groups, ministries, and lobbyists into that mix the process becomes that much more complicated. If the disability sector is to be truly progressive, all those parts can remain, but the question really is about how much time, energy and cost will be required to get better results.

At a local network meeting this week, DPA president Gerri Pomeroy said that one of the big things their organisation is working on currently sits in lobbying training and community connectedness.

Representation at the political level and having the right people in those roles is key, but it only serves one part of the puzzle. Many would argue that the disability community, particularly in New Zealand, relies too much on the “nanny state” and constantly blames the political spectrum for life outcomes disabled people are experiencing.

Those people would argue that the Government and the services they provide aren’t going to make society more equitable for disabled people – their only role is to help put the required support systems in place.

That’s where this conversation gets somewhat murky – and it’s completely open to interpretation. Just what is an equal society and what role does the Government play in that?

Robyn Hunt’s recent article in the Spinoff was a great history lesson about disability in literature. She called for “better writing” about disability on all fronts, and whilst that is very true, we also need to be better as a community of people.

Stop all the petty politics and infighting, because, for as much as we hear about how “wonderfully diverse” the disability community is, that seems to go out the window at some very crucial times – like getting that same diversity around the conversational table.

For example, many would argue there was little to no representation from either the Autism or Deaf community in the initial co-design team tasked with developing the new support prototype currently on trial in the MidCentral.

Sure, it came down the track in the various working groups, but initially, nothing. Many would say that isn’t diversity in action, and that leads to the question, who is responsible for ensuring diversity and how do you even ensure diversity?

Perhaps there is some sort of metric system I am unaware of. But if we are to succeed in promoting a diverse and talented community, then the leaders need to be equally as accountable to their own community when such diversity and talent isn’t represented. Otherwise, it’s nothing more than an empty promise.

Examining DPO Engagement With The Disability Community

Are Disabled People’s Organisations doing enough to ensure that the voices of New Zealand’s diverse community of disabled people are being heard and represented?

Disabled People’s Organisations, or DPO’s as they are more commonly known, are representative organisations governed by disabled people. In New Zealand, the size of the eight recognised DPO’s vary, but primarily their existence and mandates are based on representing the voice and views of their members. For example, the Disabled Person’s Assembly NZ aims to engage the disability community, with a view to listen and articulate the views of the community when working alongside decision makers.

But in reality, are disabled people satisfied that the organisations representing them are really listening to and hearing their views?

To try and understand this question a little more,  I created a poll on Facebook asking members of the disability community if they felt that DPO’s were generally doing enough to ensure that their voices were being heard and represented.

Out of a total of 34 votes submitted, 26 people said that they felt DPO’s could do more to hear and represent the views of the disability community. Just 2 votes came in saying yes, they were satisfied, whilst a further 6 people argued that with more funding, DPO’s could do more for disabled people.

Granted, we are dealing with a very small number of people who voted in that poll, and there is every chance that the numbers could swing dramatically in the opposite direction if more people had their say. Many DPO’s also generate regular surveys asking their members for feedback, and that feedback may tell more of a whole story. 

The Lack Of Funding For A DPO

The problem for many DPO’s is the amount of funding available not being sufficient enough to achieve all the goals it has. This is an argument put forward by many, and whilst it is familiar, it does have a lot of merit. Lobbying Government, be that local or national, for example, can be a time-intensive process and many organisations don’t have the time to put as much effort into pushing decision makers to further consider the rights of disabled people when it comes to new or existing policy. 

Holding local community forums and advertising them costs money as well, but some DPO’s are lucky enough to have forged connections with other community organisations in the disability space and have regular opportunities to hold their events using their buildings free of charge. Further costs for DPO’s can include travel and accommodation expenses for executive committee members when on official business on behalf of that DPO, and further expenses that cannot be forgotten is the costs to rent out spaces in buildings and pay all the staff working at national and regional levels.

Revenue streams for DPO’s vary, but memberships and donations often play a big part in balancing the books year to year.

Making Changes, Taking Responsibility For Delivering A Quality DPO

It is absolutely vital that the voices of disabled people and families, as well as the organisations working alongside them, are heard at the local level. But this, in all reality, is a two-way street. Many people with experience working within DPO’s argue that the community itself doesn’t engage enough with their elected leaders by attending local forums and national events, spreading the word about a DPO, or generally caring about what’s going on.

As a result of this, once regular forums see a lack of continued support from the community, slowly becoming stale, leading to disillusion on both sides.

That’s where two things become ultra important moving forward. Firstly, how local leaders engage with communities. These leaders need to ensure that regular meetings are held and that people know about them, and in some cases across New Zealand, this is not happening.

In the case of the DPA in the Waikato, Meetings are canceled suddenly, often without much notice or reasoning behind such other than the appropriate people needing to be somewhere else.

Advertising and information sharing on numerous modern platforms is essential also, and this is a national problem, not just for DPO’s, but for most organisations within the greater disability sector. Rather than relying on the traditional methods of monthly newsletters, word of mouth, and occasional Facebook page updates to engage with members, DPO’s need to find more ways to use new platforms such as Instagram for example, or embrace the live streaming video opportunities presented by YouTube, Facebook, and Twitch.  

Imagine a weekly live stream with an NZSL interpreter that is also presented as a podcast. This would allow a DPO to simultaneously share the latest news that would concern their membership, as well as have in depth and engaging conversations about issues that their members raise. Or, if you wanted to stick with holding local and national forums in the way that they are currently presented, at least record and advertise what happened at said forum in a way that is accessible to all disabled New Zealanders, and the wider public.

Secondly, there is a responsibility on the memberships of DPO’s as well. During conversations ahead of writing this blog, some did raise with me their frustration and disillusion with the lack of engagement by local communities when it comes to attendance at events that don’t include a Ministerial visit or big announcement of some kind.

Often, one person said, it was “the same old faces and the same old discussions at the same old events with tea and biscuits”.

Conclusion

The aim of this blog wasn’t to rubbish DPO’s, nor was it to make excuses for their occasional lack of transparency. The aim of this blog was to have a fair and frank discussion about a question that needs more attention placed on it.

We started out the blog by asking that question, are DPO’s doing enough to ensure that the voices of New Zealand’s diverse community of disabled people are being heard and represented?

Regardless of the answer to this question, the discussion should be about the roles, accountability, responsibilities, and most importantly, the outcomes that DPO’s are delivering for disabled New Zealanders at all levels. It doesn’t take a whole lot of funding to listen to people, nor does it take a whole lot of funding to discuss that invaluable feedback in the boardroom. 

Resources Used In This Blog:

Michael Pulman is a Hamilton-based writer, content creator, and public speaker. Michael has a strong interest in disability rights in New Zealand and in 2016 was a recipient of the Youth with Disability Award. You can get in touch with Michael via email at mikepulman91@gmail.com