Disability Justice Conference Speech

Disability Justice Conference Speech

July 13, 2021

The following presentation was given to the Disability Studies, Disability Justice: Challenging Ableism Conference 2021 [10-12 July].

Good morning – and thank you for inviting me here today to open this conference. Thank you to Missy for your leadership in bringing people together and creating a fantastic agenda that I hope pushes the boundaries of thinking. 

I’m sorry I can’t be there with you in person, but I’m delighted to be there via zoom and will also be involved in another discussion via zoom this afternoon. 

The discussions we have today will be existential ones – the learnings meaningful. I’m looking forward to hearing about people’s experiences and sharing ideas about challenging attitudes to disability and disrupting views of disability so that we can truly change outcomes and experiences for disabled people. 

We’re an awesome bunch of passionate people who are an important part of forging this change.  

I’m very excited to be involved in this conference to listen to our diverse experiences. I’m particularly looking forward to hearing Huhana’s perspective and re-connecting with those I facilitated a panel on disability justice with a few weeks back.  

When I listen to Huhana I always take something new from her presentations. Huhana has a unique perspective – she brings incredible mana, intellectual heft, wisdom, and purity of purpose, so I’m in high anticipation of her discussion on free choice – and what the reality might be for a disabled person. 

My role. 

So today I’m going to talk about my role – as Disability Rights Commissioner, some of the projects we’re working on to address systemic discrimination towards disabled people and our legal obligations under te Tiriti and the UNCRPD. 

I’ll end on a video of a TedTalk which I found is a good articulation of the kind of work we’re doing at the Commission and on my observations of working for and in this sector.  

I’d love to take your questions – at the end if we have time.  

My Role  

My statutory function under the Human Rights Act is protecting and promoting the rights of disabled New Zealanders within the human rights context.  That means while I have a range of levers, much of my time is taken up with what we call strategic lobbying or advocating. Whether it’s meeting ministers, MPs or local councillors, making submissions or of course speaking engagements. 

Working within the human rights context is challenging –and there can be tensions, because – as I’m sure many of you will know – that context isn’t often well understood. 

It’s implicit that part of my role is in managing those tensions – and I do that through active engagement with a variety of stakeholders and publics. But sometimes I must accept the position we take within the human rights framework is going to be misinterpreted – sometimes wilfully.  

But now more than ever human rights are critical if we are to make progress for disabled people.  -  

{talk about social model of disability) 

My goal is for genuine change – and for society to see the benefits that being truly inclusive and diverse bring.  

We must confront the outcomes disabled people face in Aotearoa. One of the positive changes in recent times is, albeit slowly, we are getting better data and evidence about disabled people. 

But it's confronting. Because it reveals that across most social indicators of what amounts to a good life, disabled people in Aoteroa fare worse than on-disabled people. This is across employment, housing, health outcomes, education, and we are disproportionately represented in the youth justice and adult prison populations.  

Yet, we signed up to international conventions saying we would progressively realise the rights afforded to disabled people.  It’s not optional – Governments can’t pull out of the commitments made.  Yet, we are a long way from meeting these commitments.  

We need a CRPD lens across all policy development, we need it embedded in legislation, we need lawyers referring to the CRPD in legal arguments, so it builds a case law and precedent for upholding rights.  

And we need people at the coalface making inclusion happen – in our schools, businesses – everywhere.  

Programmes of work  

There is a lot to be done- and it’s impossible to be across everything. We have some big opportunities for disabled people coming up if they are done well. That’s the consideration of changes to the disability part of the health and disability system - decisions are due in September – I'm hoping to see big transformation with where things sit inside government, I want to see pilots and demonstrations come to an end soon and move to roll out system transformation extensively. There is also the proposed accessibility legislation- which if done well could open a legislative scheme to ensure far greater access. And there’s investment in housing – which we must be at the forefront of. 

I want to now touch on my top priorities and what we are doing. 

Housing Accessibility  

I’ve been saying this for many years – lack of accessible housing for disabled people is at crisis levels.  

Housing is a human right. By that we mean appropriately designed and located, warm, dry, safe and affordable houses - a place to call home in the community.  

There is still much to do.  

We understand affordable housing is an issue for hundreds and thousands of us – regardless – but given disabled people are more likely to live in poverty because of often unintentional discriminatory policies and practises, accessible and affordable housing is even more pressing for many of us.  

We are seeing some pockets of progress in accessibility. The Thames Coromandel District Council, is for instance, incentivising new housing that contains universal design features. And in Christchurch the One Central development has half the homes targeted for a LifeMark 3-star rating for accessibility and universal design. Wellington City Council recently agreed to set some UD standards for new builds and so have Hamilton.  So that’s some good news. 

But these are small, discrete projects. They’re not the norm. We’re not seeing the leadership from government and other councils to enable this type of building to become the norm. So currently economies of scale mean this kind of building is unlikely to happen on a smaller scale unless you have deeper pockets. Central and local government needs to step up to incentivise better access, we must make sure the next National Policy Statement on housing and urban design has us front and centre and we must urge Kainga Ora to lift its low 15% target for UD to 100%.  

I want to make sure that accessible housing is part of the government’s building programme and funding for infrastructure, so this work remains a priority for me.  

I’ve also been encouraging councils to look at the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing’s project called Make the Shift – make-the-shift.org. Great website, by the way, lots of interesting stuff on it.  

Inclusion in schools 

Inclusive education should not be elusive for disabled children and young people.  I want non-disabled children to see disabled people in the same way as them – that is part of his every-day life – present, there, participating. Not excluded either by physical barriers, pedagogical or school setting or environmental barriers. 

I wish all school boards of trustees could watch this… 

[play video] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEyjlqixq9c 

I think this articulates quite clearly what is meant by inclusive education. My approach is to talk about the benefits of providing an inclusive environment rather than seeing it as a matter of compliance.  

I spend a fair bit of my time talking with organisations such as the  

New Zealand Schools Trustees Association, ERO, Unions, Teachers Council, the Ministry of Education and various parent groups – about the benefits of inclusive education and our responsibility to ensure schools provide it. 

I have to say the reception of many organisations has been positive – many have shown a real willingness to embrace this approach and to see the benefits being inclusive bring. 

But what we really need is a proper vision for inclusive education with a mapped-out plan of how we will get there across all the domains- curriculum, workforce, data, infrastructure, policies and legislation.  

Violence and abuse against disabled people 

Many of you will be aware that disabled people overall experience violence at twice the rate of non-disabled people, at least, and up to 10 times the rate for sexual violence against women and girls. That’s why we’re working on a programme to address this issue.  

We know underlying social attitudes contribute to risk, and long-term prevention and response will have limited or no success without challenging those attitudes.  

We know tāngata whaikaha and disabled people can find it difficult to escape violence and abuse because they lack control over their own lives and have limited access to accessible resources such as information and emergency accommodation.  

And we know tāngata whaikaha and disabled people have a human right to live free from exploitation, violence, and abuse, and to participate in resolving issues that affect them.  

And finally, we know these rights are enshrined in te Tiriti o Waitangi; the UNDRIP and CRPD. 

That’s why I’ve started a project to increase knowledge and understanding of these complex issues by first commissioning a report on the size of the problem; how to best prevent it occurring; and how to support those affected.  

The report will be a resource for advocates and allies who, alongside the commission, will use the information to grow understanding and advocate for more resources to help tāngata whaikaha and disabled people. 

We also prepared advise for Government earlier drawing their attention to the importance of disabled people being involved in the Joint Venture on family and sexual violence and I’m pleased this was taken up and many are now involved. 

Project Mobilise – Challenging attitudes  

Much of what I’ve been talking about today has been about challenging everyday attitudes to disability and what it means to be a disabled person. So much assumption made, so few questions asked.  

We hope to change that with Project Mobilise. This is the working title of a project to challenge negative assumptions and attitudes towards disability. 

The genesis of this is research we commissioned in 2018 which affirmed much of what we already knew – that disabled people face frequent discrimination and exclusion, such as being made to feel worthless, or being abused. It demonstrated that beyond overt hostility, people are excluded as much by being overlooked and left out. 

Sadly, the research confirmed we still don’t understand how negative narratives and stereotypes disadvantage the 24% of us that are disabled.   

That’s how Project Mobilise came about – and the fact the disabled community has been asking for something like this for years.  

Project Mobilise will form the basis of a te Tiriti based programme of work designed to challenge those ways of thinking.  We know changing attitudes and behaviour won’t happen overnight. Change needs a long term, multi-layered, multi- faceted campaign. It will need long term commitment.  We use Nōku Te Ao: Like Minds as our exemplar.  We want commitment to fundamental social change and fair access to education, employment, health, housing, cultural and political life for disabled people in the long term.   

Currently we’re working with an agency to facilitate surveys, workshops and hui involving tāngata whaikaha, disabled people, Pasifika disabled people and non-disabled people to co- design a strategy for social innovation. 

This co-design is utterly integral to the process – without it we won’t be able to facilitate genuinely meaningful strategy for the disabled community, and our society. Having confidence and belief in the process from the disabled community will go a long way towards ensuring its success in the long run.  

I’d love to talk with anyone interested about the project. Check out the website – projectmobilise.co.nz – that will tell you more.  


Finally, I’d like to end this session on some reflections of my observations on our community and where we can make more headway. This list is in no order of importance by the way.  

Focussed - it’s all about focus - focus, focus, focus. When we, as a sector, are more strategically focussed and do a few things well that unite under an over-arching framework for change, we have greater impact.   

United – when we are united and have clarity of objectives – we get traction. I’m still observing cases where decision makers are unintentionally playing us off against each other, or stall decision making because we either present as uncoordinated or as having different views.    

Allied - having allies outside our sector that champion our causes as well – not on behalf of us, never as a substitute, can also lend weight.  This is very much a deliberate tactic in Project Mobilise – where we’re aiming to work extensively with businesses and influential individuals to help further the cause.  After all – we’re all part of the solution, right?  

Champions - having champions demonstrates strength of feeling – and it means there are others to help shoulder the burden of any criticism – if there is any. And of course, there’s more to share the joy with too.  

So that sums it up but before I go, I’d like to show you this video of a TedTalk that I really like because it captures and expresses what I’ve been talking about.  

This person, Dylan Alcott, articulates an example of a life well lived – the life all disabled people should at least have the choice to live, a life where they are determining their own agency.  It’s not about having nothing left to lose – it’s about having everything to gain.  

[play – suggest to about 7 minutes in  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvNOzJ7x8qQ]