Saving & Sustaining Disability Supports In 2020

Buckle in and get ready folks, 2020 should be a year like no other as it pertains to saving and sustaining the disability support system. 

Before we can look forward, we must, as always, take a look back. By any reasonable measure; 2019 was a year of positive stories that should’ve aided optimism heading into what many believe will be a make or break decade for a sector all to often forgotten by the establishment.

In fact, 2019 was pretty great, really.

There was free, yes free, public transport for disabled people in the Waikato, something that was pushed over the line by local advocates. There was the emergence of The Cookie Project as a way to increase disabled employment that appears to be working and, to top it all off, Robert Martin was recognized for his services to the disability community with a knighthood on the New Year honours list.

Indeed, it was a year of highlights if you were willing to look past some of the negative headlines that were shining a light on funding challenges facing existing support systems and the viability of new ones.

And here we are, fresh into a new decade which kicks off with an election year, meaning it is the year of promises. Oh, can’t you feel the sense of optimism?

MP’s Must Show They Care About Disabled People

There will be all the usual discussion of voting and how disabled people make 24% of the population, which means every effort should be made to make the voting process as accessible as possible to the forgotten “voice”. Familiar? Yes.

There will be discussion, perhaps even a few throwing their hat into the ring, surrounding “actual disabled people” being involved in the political establishment, locally and nationally. Familiar? Yes.

Then there are the actual promises themselves, by way of policy and the visions behind such. In other words; there are the actual roadmaps, explanations and commitments behind all the meetings that will take place. Familiar? Yes.

Nothing in 2020 will be new, at least from the spoken word, but it’s the action part where the guts of whatever direction is taken will or won’t be found.

The various MP’s responsible for such matters on both sides of the house have had ample opportunity to engage with disabled people and their families about the issues impacting them, but like usual, the next eleven months prior to the polls will be when most discussions are had.

Make no mistake, there is a difference between politicians hearing and seeing the stories from their own eyes versus hearing it through reports sent by advocacy groups, representational orgs and the ministries implementing systems.

One could argue that the Ministry of Health (MoH), in particular, is coming into 2020 facing the most distrust from the disability community that it’s ever endured. How to turn that, distrust at one level and uncertainty at the core, will be no easy task.

In order to win voters, Carmel Sepuloni, the Minister for Disability Issues, and Associate Health Minister Julie Anne Genter, need to front the criticisms that came in 2019 head-on and actually discuss them.

Just how did the MoH come so close to making such radical cuts? How can disabled people, many of which make up eligible voters, trust that there is actually a sustainable system in place to ensure it doesn’t become a possibility again? How much further investment is needed, not just to cover all basis, but assume sustainability?

All key questions need to be asked because what happened in April 2019, and the lead up to it, wasn’t the MoH just deciding to be bad people and take care away from disabled people. Quite the opposite, in fact, it was something which the powers that be determined was a requirement in order to be cost-effective.

The only way to ensure such an occurrence doesn’t happen is to invest. Either that, or finally admit that the system may not be as inclusive as many would have you believe.

In their hard-hitting report towards the end of 2019, NZDSN (New Zealand Disability Support Network), advocating on behalf of providers, said that there needs to be a national discussion about what a “reasonable and necessary” taxpayer contribution towards Enabling Good Lives and what its sustainability is.

The question then becomes, if it turns out that the new system isn’t sustainable, then what?

That’s why, whichever way you lean politically, 2020’s election will likely see policies that promise a significant uptake in investment towards the Disability Support System (DSS). There will be an announcement as to the future of Enabling Good Lives, and this could potentially include a timeframe for when the “new system” rolls out nationally.

It’s hard to see what else either Labour or National can do in order to make a splash, and by any sense of scale, this is an area where a fresh coat of paint is needed. Whilst Enabling Lives may represent the great new frontier, behind how the principles are being implemented reeks of the old ways of doing business.

It all becomes about how much either party and their responsible ministers truly care about doing something in this area.

The absolute worst result would be a middling, half-baked and long-term vision that is light on detail. You’ll likely get “over three years” type of talk from politicians, but if there is no substance behind whatever is said, alarm bells should rightly ring come November.

Also, let’s not forget how political the End of Life Choice bill and Legalization of Cannabis will become in terms of the disability space if they haven’t already. These two conversations have the potential to overshadow some of the crucial questions that need to be asked surrounding how support for disabled people is delivered and sustained in New Zealand.

Be very wary of that, every effort must be taken to ensure that all voices are heard and that there are actual answers to what those voices will ask.

Who’s Really Representing Disability in Parliament?

Ministers responsible for representing disability rights are having a tough go of it down in Parliament. Why aren’t more disabled people leading the conversation? 

The question of representation at a political level has long been a talking point amongst the disability sector, often one of frustration. There is a very strong belief that in order to achieve more politically, more people who actually have a disability need to be the ones doing it.

Many national organisations and community groups have disabled people in key decision-making roles already. The United Nations also have disabled-people in charge of the conversation for that specific area.

It just makes sense right, surely that lived experience and first-hand learning counts for something? It’s not just about being able to identify as someone with a disability, either. One of the biggest gripes advocates have is how the issues impacting people in the community are so often spoken for by the non-disabled, without any understanding of the real-world impacts of what is involved.

Comments by the Associate Minister of Health in response to yet more reports of funding freezes for Disability Support Services are a good example.

As concerns over continued funding cuts are raised, to hear Julie Anne Genter basically palm them off as nothing more than operational matters would do doubt have insulted many disabled people and families being impacted by what the Ministry of Health is doing.

Ok, ensuring gender pay equity and meeting demand may be seen as simple operating matters, but surely Genter can’t be convinced that adding an additional $72m for these areas alone equals results that deliver greater choice and control for how disabled people get the supports they require to simply live life?

If so, then who is giving her such advice? The non-disabled? Remember, we are talking about 24% of New Zealand’s total population.

That’s no small amount of people, imagine what the number could be had more disabled people been able to participate in the census. Imagine what the results would be had a more regular disability survey been initiated by the Government. What about the extra un-accounted extra 25% of people requiring disability support suddenly coming out of the woodwork?

Carmel Sepuloni, the Minister for Disability Issues and Social Development, gets the best grade rating from those inside Parliament. Her comments on a recent podcast where she said adding more value to the disability workforce shouldn’t, in anyway, undermine disabled people’s right to accessing quality services weren’t only obvious, but one of the more real things a minister has said about this sector in some time.

Meanwhile on the education front, Tracey Martin admitted back in April that despite significant funding boosts, early intervention for disabled learners in education had fallen short.

Who’s Really Representing Disability in Parliament?

The general school of thought hasn’t changed much over the years when it comes to who is ultimately responsible for making the changes needed to better the participation, rights, and lives of disabled people in New Zealand.

The buck stops with Government and it’s their responsibility to make it happen and stop discriminating, right?

This is just as much an awareness issue as it is one of the Ministers involved having the ability to pull the right levers at the right time to get a result that is halfway decent.

Those Ministers aren’t only not disabled, but they grew up in a society that didn’t place emphasis on those forgotten in marginalized communities.

The point being is that shifting attitudes in society goes well beyond what the Ministers are doing in Parliament, but they can be, in a big way, very effective leaders of that conversation. That current track record goes to show that there is a lot of room for doing things differently, starting with a more deliberate and frequent conversation about disability matters.

Like how Government targeted mental illness with the wellbeing budget of 2019, how do they get disability issues to be a big talking point in 2020? It is an election year so the community should expect a bit more and will do doubt get something to talk about from ministers.

Just what exactly? Well, it may just time in with evaluations and decisions on the future of Mana Whaikaha (Enabling Good Lives) quite nicely with an eye toward announcements in early 2021. That’s not exactly a vote-shifter though.

But nevertheless, go to any disability gathering of note that seeks to ask the hard questions of Government officials, usually it’s those very officials dictating the terms of conversation.

That’s what needs to change, pronto.