Govt marches on with irresolute disabilities policy, little support

Photo: ODT files
Many of us will have cringed through a situation where ourselves or someone we know is trying as hard as they can to make things better for somebody but is only succeeding in making things worse.

If you want to see this playing out on the political stage right now, consider the poor well-meaning Government and its handling of the Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill.

At every stage of this Bill’s progress so far the people who it is intended to help — the million or so New Zealanders who identify as or who can be classified as disabled — have said no, this law reform will not deliver the changes needed to make our lives easier and for us to live in dignity.

But at every stage the Government has ploughed on regardless, seemingly confident that everything, somehow, will work out in the end.

There have been opportunities for it to pull up and avoid disaster — the submission period to the social services and community select committee had to be extended because so many people wanted to turn up in person to say the Bill was a barker — but sometime in the next fortnight or so Disability Issues Minister Priyanca Radhakrishnan will kick off the second reading debate with a no doubt vain attempt to snatch vindication from the jaws of vilification.

A month ago the select committee reported back to the House after "10 months of careful consideration" and a series of delays, rendering its findings suitable for publication.

Penny Simmonds
Penny Simmonds
With excruciating irony, the committee wanted the report translated into five accessible formats (Braille, Easy Read, audio, New Zealand Sign Language video and large print) but ran out of time to completely achieve that.

One of the substantive changes the Bill proposes is to set up an accessibility committee, led by disabled people, to advise on accessibility issues, and make the Government accountable for delivering on that front.

Most of the amendments to the draft Bill are technical and relate to the setting up and administration of the committee.

It would be a considerable understatement to suggest the proposed changes fell below what the affected communities were hoping for.

The Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA) started by saying it was "extremely disappointed" no substantive changes had been made to the Bill, before really going to town.

"The changes the committee have put forward are so insignificant as to be insulting to the many disabled people and allies who presented to the social services and community committee," it blasted.

For good measure, it added that what New Zealand needed was what many countries overseas already have — and what the DPA and many others have called for all along — accessibility legislation with standard-setting powers, powers of enforcement, investigative powers and the ability to rectify breaches of accessibility.

Now to be fair, the Government has not failed entirely in its endeavours for the disability sector.

Liz Craig
Liz Craig
The establishment of Whaikaha — the Ministry of Disabled People — is a not inconsiderable step and its inaugural chief executive ,Paula Tesoriero, is an articulate and determined champion.

The former disability rights commissioner at the Human Rights Commission is not one to be fobbed off and neither is her successor Prudence Walker — coincidentally enough, the former chief executive of the DPA.

While the time for public submissions has ended, both will no doubt be making the views of the sector well and truly known.

The second reading debate will likely square the two Invercargill MPs, Liz Craig and Penny Simmonds, off against each other.

Both understand the sector well — Dr Craig as a medical professional and Ms Simmonds as a parent with lived experience aplenty to draw on.

Dr Craig, a member of the select committee, weighed in at first reading to say it was incredibly important the Government had the voices of those with lived experience around the table ... which is true, but those people firmly believed then and now that it is the wrong table and in the wrong room.

"It’s going to be important that that committee then makes recommendations to the minister on how we can prevent barriers to access for various government agencies," Dr Craig added, "not only making recommendations but then being required to report annually on their progress at implementing those recommendations.

"This is the important next step in making sure that disabled people and their whānau have that voice and are able to reduce those barriers that prevent them from living the lives they want."

Paula Tesoriero
Paula Tesoriero
Ms Simmonds is not on the committee but, as her party’s disability issues issues spokeswoman, for more than two years subbed in on the committee and will have had a considerable part to play in drafting National’s dissenting comment on the report.

"The Bill is fundamentally flawed and [National] will therefore not be supporting the Bill.

"National recommends the Bill be withdrawn and a new Bill drafted that aligns more closely with the expectations of the disability sector as expressed in the majority of submissions."

National had supported the Bill at first reading in the hope it could be improved at select committee, but were left sorely disappointed.

It was not the only political voice raised in opposition to the Bill; in a rare moment of agreement the Green Party stood side by side with National in deciding not to back a law change for disabled people which is actively opposed by disabled people.

As the parties noted, 93% of the 523 submissions wanted substantial changes to the Bill.

What those people and organisations are instead likely to receive is something much more vapid from a government which had pledged genuine change and instead looks set to enact something much more vacillating.