Disability Rights in Aotearoa New Zealand – Where Have We Got To?

Disability Rights in Aotearoa New Zealand – Where Have We Got To?

July 2, 2019

By Paula Tesoriero, Disability Rights Commissioner.

Based on a speech delivered at the Victoria University of Wellington Human Rights Symposium on the Rights of Disabled People, 2 July 2019.

As Disability Rights Commissioner, my vision for New Zealand is the same as that in the Convention and that is one where disabled people’s human rights are enjoyed every day; where everyone has choice and control in their own lives on an equal basis to others, and that disability becomes a positive identity that we value and embrace as a nation.

Two weeks ago, I was in New York for the Conference of State Parties where nations around the world who have ratified the Convention come together to report on progress.  

In opening the session, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres referred to the first-ever UN Flagship Report on Disability and Development which highlights core challenges: disproportionate levels of poverty, lack of access to education, health services, employment and the under-representation of persons with disabilities in decision-making and political participation.  

He said we must do much more to address discrimination and exclusion ~ particularly against girls and women with disabilities. We must do much more to ensure full accessibility to schools, health care and services, the workplace, leisure and recreational activities, sports, and all areas of life. We must also do much more on transportation, infrastructure and information and communications technology to make our cities, rural areas, and societies inclusive.  

Although this reflects a global perspective it does provide a pretty accurate picture of where we are at in New Zealand.  We have some good legislation and policy in place, and progress is definitely being made in some areas such as strengthened involvement of disabled people in decision making, but we still have a long way to go in all of the areas he referred to.   

I am a member of the International Monitoring Mechanism (IMM) of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), as are the Office of the Ombudsman and Disabled People’s Organisations. Next year, New Zealand will be examined by the UN for our compliance with the Convention. This will be our second review.  

After the first review the CRPD committee made a number of recommendations to New Zealand.  In 2017, in preparing for the process of our second review, the IMM assessed how well the recommendations had been progressed and concluded:  “While some positive developments have occurred rather than the Recommendations being fully actioned, the majority of the responses have only been either partially actioned or there has been no meaningful action”. 

The IMM has conveyed this both to the Government and also to the UN. Disabled people still face barriers that hinder the ability to participate fully in society.  

The IMM has already identified six key priority areas that if we made meaningful progress on, would result in significant improvements in opportunities for disabled people: 

  • Data: there are large gaps in disaggregated disability data in New Zealand. We need this data to properly understand our progress in making disability rights real. 
  • Education: engagement with education is one of the most critical protective factors and indicators of a life course. Our education system is not fully inclusive. Forty-three percent of disabled young people aged 15-24 are not in education, training or employment. 
  • Employment: Unlocking the employment potential of people with disabilities is critical both for their independence and self-worth. I welcome the review of the minimum wage exemption that mean some disabled people are not paid at the same rate as other people. 
  • Seclusion and restraint: Seclusion and restraint is overused, including for people in detention, and not always used as a last resort as part of a suite of options.  
  • Access to information and communication: Disabled people still are not getting fundamental information communicated in accessible ways. 
  • Housing: There is a lack of accessible housing in New Zealand. Just 5 per cent of the housing stock is meets standards for accessibility. 

These issues are by no means an exhaustive list but provide us with a good barometer of the position of disabled people. 

The state of the nation 

So where are we at? For the 24 per cent of New Zealanders who identify as disabled, the current outlook in New Zealand needs to change, and quickly, in order for them to get a fair go in New Zealand.  

43.3% of young disabled people are not in employment, education or training, this is still more than four times the rate of young non-disabled people (9.7%).  

Education is a critical indicator of life course. A quality education system where all children are supported to receive, participate, and achieve in education to their full potential is vital if New Zealand is to shift the dial on the above stats. These stats represent a massive loss of individual potential and a significant cost to the economy. 

Other groups of children, including Maori and Pasifika children and young people have not been advantaged by the education system. It is critical that disabled students also have equitable access to and outcomes from a quality public education system education. 

The June 2018 Household Labour Force Survey statistics, showed virtually no change from 2017: 

  • disabled people are three times less likely to be in work.  (22.3% for disabled people versus 70% for non-disabled.)  
  • twice as likely to be unemployed.  (10.6% versus 4.3% for non-disabled)  
  • receiving about half the income of non-disabled people (Median weekly income for disabled people was $358 vs $712)   

The data clearly shows that disabled people are missing out, are in fact amongst the most marginalised in the labour force, and that is why Employment is one of my top priorities as Disability Rights Commissioner.  And indeed, every time disabled people are asked what their top priorities are, Employment is nearly always No 1.  

I am disheartened, however, at the ongoing under-resourcing of disability support services which leave disabled people without the proper level of support they need to achieve the quality of life they want. 

Structural discrimination remains pervasive. Māori, Pasifika, women, migrants, refugees and disabled people continue to experience negative disparities across a range of key socio-economic indicators. 

Disabled people are further behind other population groups in a number of key well-being measures (eg housing, security and warmth and have some significant access to health issues resulting in poor life outcomes – especially for people with learning disabilities.). These measures were talked about in the recent Report to the Government on Mental Health and Addiction Services.  

The Government is currently undertaking comprehensive reviews and inquiries in several areas, including mental health, education, housing, welfare, tax, and historical abuse in State care. 

These reforms provide an important opportunity to address current shortcomings in New Zealand’s domestic human rights record, particularly as regards the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights.   

There have been some encouraging signs.  I have been encouraged that the Government has recently announced that the discriminatory statutory provisions that currently apply to home-based care of disabled people will be repealed and a fairer, more accessible system will be introduced. Furthermore, the introduction in 2019 of the first “Well-being” budget is a positive step towards an approach to economic and fiscal decision-making that is more aligned with human rights principles and objectives.  

The Mental Health Inquiry panel recognised that “People said that unless New Zealand tackles the social and economic determinants of health” we will not see change in the problems they are trying to address. This is true too for changing the outcomes of disabled people. People need safe and affordable houses, good education, jobs and adequate income to enjoy mental wellbeing.  

Disabled young people are over-represented in care and protection stats and in youth justice stats and in bullying and exclusion stats. Disabled people (especially women) are over-represented in violence and abuse stats.  

A roundtable held with disabled women by the Ministry of Women found that as victims of sexual violence, people with disabilities face a disproportionate disadvantage at the point of disclosure: they are less likely to be believed and often perceived as asexual.  

When the Human Rights Commission held consultations last year with disabled women one of the main issues they brought up was violence and abuse. 

It is good that the Government has budgeted for research into the needs of disabled people related to sexual and family violence. 

I believe we will only make systemic change – see a true step change for disabled New Zealanders- if we have a national conversation about our attitudes about disability. We know that many people worldwide still see disabilities as a tragedy or something to be pitied or avoided. We see it in the media, we see it in how we are treated, and we see it in the systems, policies and structures that are put in place.  

I have voiced my concerns at the risks posed by the End of Life Choice Bill currently before Parliament and its potential impact on the lives of some of the most marginalised disabled people who do not have the freedom of true choice. 

When discriminatory attitudes are overlaid with other identities such as indigenous peoples, LGBTI and gender these attitudes can be exacerbated.  

Although some countries have experienced improvements there are new risks, in the context of social media, which has forever made it easier to bully and discriminate against disabled people. 

Another important development last year for disability rights was the adoption of General Comment 7 by the United Nations, which outlines what meaningful participation for disabled people means in the implementation and monitoring of the Disability Convention.  

With this as our guide, it will become the norm to involve disabled people in design and policies in both the public and private sectors. It will become the norm to see disabled people in key roles because we have raised aspirations about what is possible.  

Participation is more than the right thing to do, or the nice thing to do it is the most effective thing to do. It’s about duty bearers and all of us worldwide having a different mindset –understanding that designing our world with barriers supports participation and vibrant communities and that is best for everyone.  

And just to ensure we have a common understanding: meaningful participation requires a genuine commitment by governments to much more than consultation just running ideas past disabled people. It means right from conception, fully involving us in all phases, and facets of design and implementation; Governments need to demonstrate a genuine understanding of how to ensure that every one can have their say in their own way and how doing this leads to better outcomes in policy and practice. 

For example, today’s young people interact and seek to influence in fundamentally different ways than in the past and may not see themselves as being ‘part’ of a Disabled Persons’ Organisation yet they will shape the future of disability in our world.

Later this month, the IMM will hold public consultations with the disability community to talk about what needs to change in New Zealand. These consultations will be used to inform a report we will present to Parliament and the United Nations about the state of the nation in terms of disability rights.  I encourage you to check our website for details. 

We have to do better. We are 12 years on and we have significant steps to take to make the Disability Convention real for disabled New Zealanders.