Disability Rights Commissioner speech to YMCA Annual Convention by

Disability Rights Commissioner speech to YMCA Annual Convention by

July 13, 2021

The following speech was given to the YMCA Annual Convention, Saturday May 22.

Thank you for inviting me to take part in your conference here today.  I relish all opportunities to educate about and advocate for disabled people.  

Today I’ll talk about: 

  • My role as the Disability Rights Commissioner 
  • I’ll show you some great videos  
  • I’ll talk terminology, statistics and obligations   

And finally, I’ll talk about my personal experiences and what motivates me and what the YMCA can do to support the disabled community 

I’d love to take questions at the end so write any down you might have. 

So, what do I do? 

My role as the Disability Rights Commissioner is to protect and promote the rights of disabled people.  

I should contribute to creating better outcomes for disabled people and for society.  

We all benefit when we all have access to opportunity and when goods, services and products are equitably distributed.  

These are things I feel very strongly about.  

I call it levelling the playing field – I use a sporting analogy because I come from an athletics background – I’ll talk about that later.  

I want to see all people have the same opportunities for living life to the fullest potential – not just some people.  

We live in a world that still makes it incredibly hard for disabled people to achieve their goals – let alone aspire to them.

There are lots of incredibly committed disabled people who refuse to let the world prescribe their lives. They fight very hard to walk their own path and determine their own destiny. 

This takes an incredible amount of effort, grit and time. 

Too often disabled people simply don’t have that – or don’t have the right combination of circumstances, help and support to challenge the status quo. It takes a village, right?  

But often disabled people are excluded from village living. 

Terms and why we use them 

So now I’ll talk about some terminology that will help you understand the world disabled people live in. One’s called Ableism and the other is the social model of disability. 

Ableism– simply put – is discrimination – whether deliberate or unintentional, systemic or structural. It’s basically discrimination in favour of able-bodied people. And disabled people face it every day. 

The world simply works against us. 

The social model of disability is another way of expressing this – it posits that disabled people are disabled not because of impairment but because of the way our laws, buildings, cities and towns, education system and cultural norms work against them. 

This video does a really good job in describing the social model and Ableism. And by the way, in Aotearoa’s context we use the term disabled person/or people – this term was established by the disabled community. It’s a term you should be aware of and use. 


Around one in four New Zealanders experiences a physical, sensory, learning, mental health, or other impairment (about 1 million of us), and about 35 percent of disabled people are over 65 (around 370,000 of us). 

Disabled people are systemically discriminated against: 

45 percent of disabled adults are employed compared to 72 percent of non-disabled people 

Disabled people are more likely to have lower incomes than non-disabled people 

34 percent of disabled women have no educational qualifications compared to 15 percent of non-disabled women 

Disabled adults experience violence and abuse at about 1.5 to 2x higher than non-disabled people 

Disabled children experience violence and abuse 3.7x more 

Disabled people report feeling lonely most/all of the time at around double the rate of disabled people (just over 11 percent for disabled and just under 3 percent for non-disabled).  

I could go on.  

In fact, around 15 percent of the world’s population has a disability – about 1 billion people. 

So, a pretty big portion of humanity is disadvantaged.  

Another thing to be aware of is that our country is a signatory to a range of Human Rights instruments including the United Nations Convention’s Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  

So, what is the Human Rights Commission doing? 

Well as signatories to the UN’s CRPD we have a statutory obligation to advance the human rights of people with disabilities. Part of our role is to review governments’ performances, consult with disabled people and report on progress towards our obligations.  

The Human Rights Commission’s vision is to work across Aotearoa to increase human rights standards in law, policy and practice. As New Zealand’s national human rights institution we work for a free, fair, safe and just nation, where diversity is valued, and human dignity and rights are respected. 

So here are a couple of examples of some of the work we do. 

This first example sees us working closely with the Teachers Council to challenge teachers’ conscious and unconscious bias – it’s called Unteach Racism. 


[3 mins]  

We’re proud of this campaign – and it’s an example of how we achieve our vision through building partnerships. 

This campaign came out of another aimed at a broader audience.  

The next clip I’ll show you demonstrates real life experiences of racism. Too often, racism goes under the guise of ‘humour’ or ‘irony’. A racist comment might be disguised by the justification ‘it was just a throwaway line’ or ‘you’ve taken it out of context’.  

But this campaign shows racism for what it is.  


Racism as a concept connects to Ableism – it’s about exclusion and otherness. Powerful, isn’t it? 

And it makes you think.  

Which is why we run this campaign. Please do share this with your colleagues. 

One of the things I want to achieve in my time as the Disability Rights Commissioner is getting a social change campaign about disability in Aotearoa off the ground. 

We’re in the early stages but when we have more to share, we’ll be doing just that because organisations like yours can, and should, play a role to make sure disabled people have a valued and positive identity.  

We’ll be looking for partners. 

Remember it takes a village – and we can all play a part.  

An educative approach 

Generally speaking, the Human Rights Commission takes an educative approach to human rights issues. We are also a te Tiriti based organisation – and we’re learning how to live that, so it becomes real. 

Our other areas of focus, outside of disability and race relations are women, indigenous rights, economic and social rights, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics rights, ill treatment in detention, business and human rights, and international reporting.  

Our general goals align broadly with international goals, and our obligations to the various human rights treaties we’re signatory to. 

So hopefully that gives you enough of an overview of the work of the Commission broadly speaking. If not – save up your questions! 

What gets me up in the morning and keeps me motivated? 

Being a mother with a non-disabled son at school. 

As a mum I want my young son to have the best education he can have.  

So, one of my priorities is Inclusive Education where all young people are welcomed and valued in the school, and the facilities, curriculum, teacher, and social activities are designed with and for inclusion and accessibility.  

As a disabled person I don’t want my son to think of disabled people as the ‘they’ or ‘those’ that are not part of his activities, or even go to school somewhere else. 

Nor do I want him to think ‘they’re’ not included in games because ‘they’ are better off elsewhere. I want my son to be part of an inclusive education system.  

So challenging perceptions in schools and the education system motivate me. 

I thought of my son when I recently read an editorial that said, One in five pupils now need help with learning disorders. 

This headline implied disabled children were a problem at school and it would be better if there were less of them in classrooms.   

I want my son to enjoy and be influenced by an inclusive education system so all children can attend the school of their first choice and get the support they need to thrive alongside their peers. 

In this school everyone’s welcome and all students learn in a way that suits their individual needs. The system needs to change to fit individuals and not the other way around.   


My other great love is sport. 

As you’ll know I’m the Chef de Mission for the Paralympics. I’m passionate about the transformative opportunity this event offers, not only for our Paralympians, but for the rest of the world. 

The Paralympics give our disabled athletes a stage upon which to show the world what they can do – not what they can’t. 

That has been my experience. 

I’ve always loved cycling - I have an affinity for it – I love the sense of freedom and movement it gives me. 

I got my first bike at five – a Healing 16. It’s been an enduring love affair.  

My lower left leg was amputated below the knee when I was 13 but that didn’t stop me. I still had a dream to compete on the world stage. 

It wasn’t easy but rewarding things never are. 

I worked hard for the one gold and two bronze medals I won at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. I’m proud of my achievements – because they show my son what I can do – not what I can’t. 

I would love for every disabled person to have the opportunities I’ve had and get to experience pride.  

That is one of my goals in life. 

So, what role can your organisation play in providing opportunities for disabled people? 

Be intentional about building understanding of the disabled community. Our website, and the Office for Disability Issues’, have useful resources on disabled people’s human rights, and great resources and toolkits for practical applications in the workplace. 

Challenge ways of thinking about disability.   

Disabled people are diverse- our impairments may be physical, sensory, psycho-social, or neurosocial, age- related or acquired – or all of them.   

And of course, we have many other identities through things like whakapapa, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, faith, or work.

In considering how your work can support disabled people, it’s helpful to think about the huge array of barriers disable people face – financial, educational, or physical.  

And think about how you can break down those barriers that prevent disabled people from accessing opportunity and participating in society.  

Use plain English for example and make all your information and processes as accessible as you can. 

I really encourage you to use your positions to seek out and advance opportunities for disabled people.  Be an ally - amplify our voices. 

You can proactively approach disabled peoples’ organisations and others working with and for disabled people. That way you’ll grow your networks and understanding. 

There is an opportunity to consider disability when you are establishing your strategic focus each year. 

Remember society often marginalises disabled people – be aware of that and think of how you and your organisation at the regional and national levels can play a role in breaking down barriers. 

When you do that, you’ll make a huge difference – and the landslide of change will pick up.  

Thank you.