Reflections from the Disability Rights Commissioner

Reflections from the Disability Rights Commissioner

December 18, 2017

Kia ora koutou,

I’m now into my fifth month as Disability Rights Commissioner. Before we all head away for some well-deserved time off over Christmas, I wanted to give you an overview of the first four months of my role.

It's been a very busy time in which I have met a huge variety of people about important issues in the disability sector and how we can work together to improve outcomes for disabled New Zealanders.

For those interested, this tells my story about growing up with disability and what led me to this role.  

I also set up Facebook and Twitter pages. Please connect with me on these pages so you can see what I’m up to and contact me with suggestions of events to attend and people to meet. 


I spent the first few months in my role listening to a wide range of groups to make sure I understood a broad range of issues to increase my knowledge and advocate well.


I met with representatives of most political parties to get their views on the major issues were for the disability sector. I also met with the Minister for Disability Issues at the time, Hon Nicky Wagner, to discuss her priority areas, as well as some government agencies about their disability-related work programmes.

This was followed by meetings with other watchdog agencies, including the Office of the Ombudsman, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, and the Mental Health Commissioner.

I met with a range of Disabled Persons Organisations and advocacy groups including IHC, Autism NZ, the Education For All forum, and STRIVE, a group of young self-advocates with Down Syndrome.

Key themes which came up at almost every meeting were: the need for accessible housing, employment issues, inclusive education, attitudes to disabled people, and accessibility in terms of infrastructure and transport as well as access to information for blind and deaf people. I was also told there are some big gaps in data which makes it difficult to provide services and get evidence to support the case for change in particular areas.   It was really helpful to hear about these issues from a range of perspectives and people and formed the basis for my priority areas.


September continued to be a busy time meeting with people in the disability sector including DPOs, government agencies, service providers, and advocates about key issues and how we can work together to achieve better outcomes for disabled Kiwis. This included discussions with Local Government New Zealand about increasing access for disabled people, particularly in relation to cities, including public transport, and meeting with a group of young disabled New Zealanders to talk about what life is like for them and their ideas about what needs to happen to ‘shift the dial’ for young disabled people. 

The Independent Monitoring Mechanism (IMM) to the CRPD of which HRC is a member alongside the Ombudsman and the coalition of DPOs, also had a busy month. The IMM met with officials from the Ministry of Health, Corrections, and Social Development to discuss issues related to seclusion and restraint of people with disabilities.

The team and I also spent quite a bit of time shaping up the strategic priorities for the disability portfolio over the next 3-5 years, using the meetings so far, along with a number of domestic and international research reports and data to help shape our thinking. This formed the basis of a document outlining my key priorities and how I want to shift the dial for disabled New Zealanders. The first five are my main priority areas which we are now in the process of shaping projects and initiatives around, some in partnership with others:

1.     Education

2.     Employment

3.     Shifting hearts and minds

4.     Data

5.     Supporting a stronger disability sector

In addition, I have identified a number of important areas I will advocate strategically on which include:


       Accessibility (infrastructure, housing, transport, health, services and information)

       State Abuse

       Violence and abuse

       Mental Health

       Support for families

       Seclusion and Restraint

       Bioethics and the place of disabled people in society

       Neurodisability issues

       Supported decision-making

For more detail on these priorities and how I intend to ‘shift the dial’, you can access the document here.


After finalising my priorities, I tested them with a group of key external stakeholders, including the Office for Disability Issues, in October.

I travelled to Auckland to speak at the Halberg Junior Disability Games (speech here).

I also met with the State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes about how we can make the state sector more diverse and inclusive of disability, and Secretary for Education, Iona Holsted, to discuss how we can work together to improve outcomes in education for disabled learners. 

The IMM had a quarterly meeting (minutes here) and continued to prepare its List of Issues Prior to Reporting document to send to the CRPD Committee. This document will help inform the UN’s review of implementing the CRPD and is available here.


In November I had a couple of very positive meetings with the newly appointed Minister for Disability Issues Hon Carmel Sepuloni. I provided the Minister with a briefing on the role of Disability Rights Commissioner, my priority issues, and the workings of the Independent Monitoring Mechanism and upcoming United Nations shadow reporting process. I look forward to working with the Minister and the Office for Disability Issues to improve outcomes for disabled New Zealanders.

Other groups I met in November included a Christchurch-based group of young disabled people about their experiences and aspirations, advocates with extensive knowledge of Maori disability issues, the CE of Workbridge and the Be. Employed team at Be. Accessible, representatives from Microsoft about the work they are doing in employing disabled people, a cross-agency group focused on mental health, some of the Access Alliance team, the manager of Auckland Disability Law, members of the Pasifika disability community including Vaka Tautua, the Ministry of Health National Screening Unit about prenatal screening for Down Syndrome, the Disability Support System Transformation team at the Ministry of Health, the Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and the DPO Coalition group.

These meetings have continued to inform my priority areas and potential for collaboration going forward.

Presentations and Strategic advocacy

Alongside meetings with a range of groups, I have presented about myself, the role, and my priority areas, at a number of meetings, conferences, and other events. These have been a great opportunity to test my thinking with people and to hear perspectives on what the key issues are. I have also spoken about key issues in the media where I can.  


I spoke at a hui on housing organised by Disabled Persons Assembly about the need for more accessible housing using a human rights framework. My speech is available here.


I spoke out about data about the disabled workforce, for which I did a video with Stats NZ, and the need to not assume disabled people can’t be successful or that disability has a certain 'look'. There was also an article about me and my aspirations for the role in Woman’s Weekly and an article introducing me and the role in Parent to Parent’s quarterly magazine.

The need for New Zealand Sign Language to be included in the election debates was in the spotlight and alongside Deaf Aotearoa, Deaf Action, and TVNZ, there was traction made in increasing access to information for sign language users. A sign language-interpreted version of the final leaders’ debate was made available on TVNZ on demand following the final debate. 

I also appeared on Fair Go, addressing concerns about extra travel insurance charges for a young girl with Down Syndrome.

I also made my first attempt at NZSL as part of International Week of the Deaf and am looking forward to learning more.


I presented at the Blind Citizens NZ AGM (speech here) and spoke to a group of Chief Executives focused on disability issues about the need to improve outcomes for disabled New Zealanders and my priorities in the role.


I presented to a range of groups across the country, including speaking at the Disabled Persons Assembly, and People First AGMs (speeches here), the launch of the Accessibility Charter in Christchurch (speech here), the SheMoves Symposium, and at the Disability Matters Conference in Dunedin (speech here).

Alongside this I spoke out about concerns over high unemployment rates for disabled New Zealanders on Newshub and about the bullying of a student with Down Syndrome.

I also travelled to Bangkok where along with the Commission’s Chief Executive, I represented New Zealand at the Asia Pacific Forum on human rights. This was a prime opportunity to meet with representatives from other National Human Rights Institutions to discuss many important human rights issues across the Asia Pacific.


I spoke at the New Zealand Disability Support Network conference about my role and some of the opportunities presented by the Disability Support System transformation (speech here).

I met with members of the DPO Coalition, including Deaf Aotearoa, People First, Disabled Persons Assembly, Ngati Kapo, and the Association of Blind Citizens, to get their feedback on our proposed priority projects.

I also met with people from Complex Carers about issues facing families who have children with high and complex needs, YES Disability Resource Centre who work with young disabled Kiwis, and the Blind Foundation.

The Dominion Post also profiled me and my journey to the role.

Key events

Attitude Awards

A real highlight in the events calendar was hosting a table on behalf of the Commission at the 2017 Attitude Awards. We were lucky to have a range of guests from education, youth, media, and state services sectors – thanks to everyone who made the time to come.

It was a fabulous evening celebrating the achievements of some of the 24% of disabled New Zealanders and their supporters in a wide range of sectors in a wide range of areas, from sport and arts and culture, to employment and entrepreneurship.

Disability Pride Week

Disability Pride Week has also been a key event this year (30 November-5 December). I had the opportunity to speak at Wellington’s Disability Pride Day and to present to Accenture about International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

This provided a great opportunity to talk about the Commission’s Proud to be Me campaign which shared the stories of some amazing disabled Kiwis over the course of Disability Pride Week which was a great success. Thanks to everyone who shared their story. If you or anyone you know are interested in sharing your own, this can be done through the “share your story” section of the website.

It was fantastic to see the huge range of events on the Disability Pride Week website, from film screenings, to art displays and concerts, and the messages of support from a range of people including the Prime Minister, Minister for Disability Issues, and State Services Commissioner. I am looking forward to next year already!

To close….

The year has ended on a positive note, with the Independent Monitoring Mechanism meeting with a group of Ministers earlier this week to discuss priority issues and how we can work collaboratively and constructively to improve outcomes for disabled New Zealanders.

Equally, 2018 promises to get off to a busy start with opportunities to present to all public sector Chief Executives about disability rights issues and to all Mayors and Chief Executives of local councils about how we can ensure our cities are more accessible already lined up.

A big thank you to everyone who has taken the time to help me settle into the role of Disability Commissioner over the past four and a half months, and to those people I haven’t yet met with, I look forward to meeting you soon. I hope you have a relaxing festive season and look forward to continuing to work with you in 2018 to shift the dial for disabled New Zealanders.

Best wishes,

Paula Tesoriero MNZM

New Zealand Disability Rights Commissioner