Disability Rights Commissioner's end of year message

Disability Rights Commissioner's end of year message

December 21, 2020

Kia ora koutou, 

At the start of the year, I posted a video message setting out some of my priorities for 2020. 

They covered: 

  • Making sure the education reforms delivered inclusive education for all New Zealanders 
  • Progressing a strategy to improve attitudes to disabled people and disability 
  • Putting disability on the agenda in the lead up to the general election 
  • Working with a range of groups advocating for better access to support for them and their families  
  • Discussing the End of Life Choice Act  
  • Ensuring Government has greater awareness of and action to address the prevention violence and abuse against disabled people 
  • Working with the DPO (Disabled People s Organisations) Coalition and Ombudsman’s Office on finalising the Independent Monitoring Mechanism IMM (Independent Monitoring Mechanisms) report to the UN on New Zealand’s status against the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 

I am pleased that progress was made across those areas even with everybody’s focus having to go on the immediate demands of the COVID-19 response for much of the year. 

In this end of year message I’ll reflect on some of my work, progress on issues, and touch on work still to be done.  

Pandemic 

My role was primarily one of connecting with the disability sector, and quickly escalating issues to the Government, or in public that needed addressing.  

This ranged from access to PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) in the community, to obtaining essential supplies like food from supermarkets, the provision of appropriate education resources and support for disabled students in lockdown, problems with masks for communication or even for some people in wearing them, the accessibility of public information, and disability support in communities.  

I was pleased to be part of numerous zoom sessions with different groups to discuss how things were going, including with the I-Lead network of young disabled people. These discussions were vital to understanding the diverse ways in which disabled people were being affected, including some of the positives experienced such as the greater flexibility to work at home for some. 

The Disabled People’s Organisations quickly responded to connecting with, and keeping their communities informed during the crisis, including setting up helplines. 

The IMM has developed a report on disabled people’s views of the Government’s response to COVID-19 following hui around the country. This report will be issued in early 2021. 

The impact of lockdown on New Zealanders gave the country a taste of what many disabled people experience on a daily basis including feelings of isolation, and restrictions on our freedoms. I feel this may have raised empathy and will help us with the strategy to improve attitudes to disability that we plan to commence in 2021, in co-design with disabled people. 

Issues 

Disability on the election agenda 

Accessibility legislation, housing, education, employment, funding were all issues put on the agenda in the lead up to the General Election in opportunities created by the sector for candidates and parties to debate key policy issues for disabled people. The pandemic really threw light on both the existing gaps in these areas, and the debates showed varying degrees of understanding of disability issues across the parties. In essence, what was stressed was “all policies are disability policies” and, as a significant population group most impacted by economic downturns, we need to be front and centre of decision-making, particularly in the pandemic rebuild. 

Violence and Abuse 

We were able to get  the issues of violence and abuse against disabled people in front of decision-makers which has resulted in commitments to fully involve disabled people in work to prevent and respond to abuse, family violence and sexual violence and to make disability explicit in their work programmes. This area will continue to be a priority in 2021. 

‘Making Disability Rights Real’ 

The IMM’s report ‘Making Disability Rights Real’ was issued on 30 June. Of the six priority areas for the IMM education, housing and seclusion and restraint were reported as the most pressing issues for the Government to take urgent action on. It is also important that we highlighted the experience of disabled Māori and Pacific peoples in our report. In addition to the six priority areas there were many other areas documented that require significant attention such as  disabled people's standard of living and access to support for participation. I really encourage you to read this report which is available on the Human Rights Commission website in a range of formats. 

Progress 

In such a tough year for most of us, it’s nice to record some progress. 

Funding for FASD Advocacy 

A big focus for me over the last year has been calling for more support for families and individuals affected by FASD, so it was good to recently see that FASD CAN, a network of families and professionals, has secured two years’ Ministry of Health funding. This is a good start towards getting those issues on the table and talk about FASD in the way that we should – not just about prevention, but about supporting families and individuals on more positive life pathways than society offers now. This funding is a credit to the hard work of many advocates. 

Much more work is needed and I will continue this work with the FASD community next year. 

Education Reforms 

Retaining ‘physical restraint’ over allowing teachers to use ‘physical force’ in last minute changes to the Education and Training Bill in July was a win for disability advocacy and protecting the rights of disabled children. Of course, we must ultimately aim for the end of restraint altogether as teachers and others in the education system are trained in better responses. 

The commission also welcomed the requirements to consult the disability community and children and young people, in particular Māori and those with learning support needs, in developing rules and guidelines. Their voices are vital to a robust child rights-centred response to these matters. 

I was disappointed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was not embedded in the Act but will be continuing to push for an inclusive education system. 

Improved Data Collection  

There have been some recent reports with specific data on health and wellbeing outcomes for disabled people. While they make dire reading on the outcomes faced, it’s great that we have this sort of disaggregated data to draw on. It is always critical that disability is visible in demographic data and essential in times of crisis like the COVID-19 response. 

Repeal of Part 4A 

In particular I want to note the Repeal of Part 4A of the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Act 2000 which happened just before the house rose prior to the election. This piece of legislation has been a source of pain for many families and disabled people who it banned from complaining to the Human Rights Commission or seeking redress through the courts about discriminatory family funding policies. 

The Human Rights Commission and others have advocated for this change since it was introduced in 2013 so it was important to get this across the line.

Sir Robert Martin’s investiture and re-election 

Like many in the human rights and disability sectors, I was so pleased at Sir Robert’s knighthood this year in recognition of his work to end institutionalisation and highlight disability rights, particularly as a voice for people with learning disabilities, on the national and global stage. Sir Robert’s re-election to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was a real acknowledgement to him and his support team. 

More to do... 

There is a lot to be done. The Government has a big reform agenda across a number of areas; including education, housing, child poverty, employment and health. I will be continuing to raise awareness of disability across this work. 

Ngā mihi.

I want to thank everyone for your work during the year, those of you who have shared your stories with me, and those of you who I have worked with to protect the human rights of disabled people. We are all in this together, and we must stay in this together. Supporting each other, reaching out to one another, and keeping connected. I also want to thank the team at the Human Rights Commission for all their hard work. 

After a big year, we need to re-charge, and I hope you have a break with your friends and family over the holidays. I greatly look forward to connecting with you in 2021. 

Paula