World Down Syndrome Day - a chance to change attitudes

World Down Syndrome Day - a chance to change attitudes

April 16, 2018

Changing attitudes towards disabled New Zealanders is critical, Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero says, and she aims to do it. 

“Attitudes towards disabled people remain at best indifferent, and at worst, discriminatory. These attitudes underpin how disabled New Zealanders are treated and valued for their contribution to society,” says Paula. 

“Changing them is so much more than just a ‘nice to do’. It’s critical.”

Paula points out that 42 per cent of disabled young people aged 15-24 are not engaged in education, employment or training, and the overall unemployment rate of disabled people is more than twice that of non-disabled. 

Estimates are that reducing this by addressing accessibility barriers to employment would contribute $862m of GDP to New Zealand.

“I want every New Zealander to stop and think about disability through a different lens than you might have previously. We need to challenge assumptions made and attitudes held about New Zealanders with disabilities,” Paula says. 

“Let’s also acknowledge that if we all play our part in addressing underlying attitudes towards disability, we can change outcomes for disabled New Zealanders.”

On March 21, World Down Syndrome Day, the New Zealand Down Syndrome Association launched a video that aimed to change these discriminatory attitudes too. 

Dear Health Professionals features 14 self-advocates from the Down syndrome community sharing a message.

It’s simple: “We’re all different and unique, we all have value, and everyone has the right to live a happy and healthy life.”

It’s well-established that many people with intellectual disabilities, including Down syndrome, are still not getting their rights to health, education, and community living completely fulfilled, Paula says. 

Their life expectancy is less, they struggle to get a fair deal at their local school, and despite the closing of residential institutions, many do not get to choose where, how, and with whom, they live.

People often think those with Down syndrome can’t work, live independently or be in a relationship. Many do all these things. They have their own flats, partners, and jobs, and they run successful businesses. They have goals, challenges and aspirations, just like any person does. 

Yes, they may have barriers that others don’t. But they face their challenges and keep pushing to achieve their goals and aspirations just like the rest of us. 

People with Down syndrome make meaningful contributions throughout their lives, whether in schools, workplaces, living in the community, public and political life, culture, media, recreation, leisure, sport and in dance. But to ensure these options are available to them, support is needed.

Last weekend, one of my team visited a dance group in Palmerston North. Each of the 15 dancers have Down syndrome. The group was started by a young woman who wanted her sister to have the same opportunity to dance as she did. Ten years on, the dancers hold bi-annual sell out concerts. As I was being told about the group, one particular comment from a dancer called Lily struck a real chord with me:

“I feel like most people with disabilities are an outcast [in a play]. The others without disability are main parts. I think they should let us have a chance to do something that we want to do.”

“We should have a chance. They should be [cast as] an outcast and see how we feel.”

Paula is strongly focused on how shifting attitudes towards disabled people in New Zealand. Part of that will be a social change campaign she is hoping to launch in the coming months.

“It’s a campaign I’m keen for all New Zealanders to be a part of.”