New Zealand’s Responsibility To Empower Harder Disability Activism

A strong level of disability activism and the willingness to exert it should be a big responsibility for all interested in making real change

Activism (by way of a Google search) is officially defined as “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change”. By its very nature, activism can be uncomfortable for many as it can disrupt many of the social norms (or the established way of behaving). 

Translating that to New Zealand’s disability community, what comes to mind about activism is it being an act carried out by the few, not the many. Disability has so often been referred to as something ‘special’ or ‘unique’, so then we should expect that it would be a good or well-behaved medium, which makes translating that into activism a real challenge. 

Advocacy (don’t mistake that for Activism) is strong in New Zealand and there are many people doing what they can to utilise their own platforms in a way that inspires others and creates a narrative about themselves and the community they serve. But as the narrative increases, so does the diversity of opinion about what needs to happen in order for disabled people in New Zealand to have their rights met.

Diversity is all well and good but when it becomes so noisy it leads to a weak level of productivity. Talking about a problem leads to an understanding, but simply understanding that problem only remains productive for so long before it becomes stale, and there is too much of that staleness breeding within the disability community currently.

Real acts of activism are limited to the brave few who often put themselves in danger of being removed from their own community in order to make the waves necessary to lead to a chance of change. Furthermore, what is deemed as the ‘right’ type of activism is so subjective that it divides many.

Compare that to overseas countries like the United States as the best example, established activist groups like ADAPT regularly take their local politicians to task over a lack of basic civil rights for disabled people. The strategies that ADAPT use in their activism campaigns have often included acts of civil obedience.

Don’t Believe The Lies, NZ’s Disability Activism Is Weak Compared To Other Countries (Even Now)

It’s hard to break down exactly why activism for the rights of disabled people doesn’t catch on as well in New Zealand. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it is certainly lacking behind the example mentioned above. 

Firstly, the disabled population is significantly smaller, and secondly, New Zealand has no official Government legislation that protects and uphold the rights of disabled people, whereas countries like the United States have the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

New Zealand, like many other countries, is required to work with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and recently a report was sent back to the United Nations responding to over 100 issues found in how the convention has worked in this country. 

The easy answer is the difference in culture, but perhaps the real truth in all of this is a basic misunderstanding of what our human rights actually are. If you don’t understand those rights, how can you tell if they are being taken away?

The gross examples are, of course, recognised and acted on by both sector leaders and representatives.

Stories like the one of Robert Martin (New Zealand’s premier disability rights activist and a sitting member on UNRCP committee) aren’t unique or isolated, but they’ve got the power to capture the hearts and minds. Martin, an intellectually disabled man, was abused in state care institutions over the course of a 27-year period. He was influential in the shutting down of those institutions at the turn of the century and has since gone on to become the poster boy of the disability rights movement in New Zealand, and a major influence internationally. 

Empower, Invest In Activism For New Zealand’s Disability Community

But back in New Zealand, in 2019, attitude towards making change for disabled people still has a certain structure to it, and it’s one that desperately needs to change.

There seems to be an unspoken rule that in order to make a change, it must be done as a collective for the most part, where there is a general agreement that something is wrong and must be addressed.

The ‘mission statement’ or desired end goal can also be too general to understand and subsequently put the processes in place from a community perspective to make it happen (working together to put accessibility at the heart of a more inclusive Aoteroa New Zealand).

This is what makes for slower processes and ultimately weaker outcomes because nobody is really held to account more often than not.

Having established legislation and real consequences to not upholding it would empower a lot more people to have more gusto behind their questioning of why things are the way they are. Perhaps those people will be even more confident that airing their concerns will play a part, if only a small one, in making a change for the better. 

Again, the voices within the disability community are not silent, but they can be so much more empowered.

People will always be in situations where their rights are being taken away, nothing about that is exclusive to disability. As a result, there will always be a need for people from all aspects of society to be willing to challenge the structures that were put in place that lead to their rights being taken away in the first place.

Having a strong understanding (outside of just your own situation) and developing a voice that can be used outside of the traditional comforts of a group meeting or working group should be the responsibility for everyone in the disability community.

To not do so is irresponsible and it passes the buck onto the next person. There is already too much of that happening. 

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