New minister for disabled people Poto Williams (Image: Supplied / Archi Banal)
New minister for disabled people Poto Williams (Image: Supplied / Archi Banal)

PoliticsJuly 4, 2022

Welcome Whaikaha: New disability ministry launches amid scepticism and hope

New minister for disabled people Poto Williams (Image: Supplied / Archi Banal)
New minister for disabled people Poto Williams (Image: Supplied / Archi Banal)

Friday’s ceremony to mark day one of the new ministry for disabled people was a celebratory event, but the challenges it faces are sobering, writes Robyn Hunt.

On a hopeful sunny Wellington morning last week, the Ministry of Disabled People was launched. Its te reo name, Whaikaha, means “enabling”.

It will be the first government ministry to have three names: English, Māori and NZ Sign Language, though its official Sign Language name has yet to be settled on.

In her recorded message at Friday’s launch ceremony, the prime minister described the new ministry as part of the transformation of a “broken and fragmented” health and disability system, but noted there was still “much to be done”.

Launched on the same day as the wider health system reforms, Whaikaha will centralise disability supports and be a single point of contact for disabled people using Disability Support Services (DSS). The ministry will further develop the Enabling Good Lives (EGL) project aimed at giving people more control over their own budgets and decision making, which was modelled on Whanau Ora principles and has been trialled since 2012 in Waikato, the former Mid-Central DHB and in Christchurch.

The new ministry, incorporating the former Office for Disability Issues, will be responsible for the development of access legislation, and its policy unit will work across government on big issues such as employment for people with disabilities.

Whaikaha has a budget of around $2 billion, including an extra $735 million to deal with growing demand for Disability Support Services. The DSS funding has moved from the Ministry of Health to the new ministry.

The minister for disabled people, Poto Williams, said the new ministry had been decades in the making, and that the principle of “nothing about us without us” would be at its heart. This common disability catch cry would finally be part of the decision-making process, which she said up to now has never been enacted properly, adding that the intersections with Māori and Pacific disabled people and other diverse communities needed to be understood and worked through.

The interim CEO is Geraldine Woods, who is not disabled but is respected in the disability community. Disabled people have declared a preference for disabled leadership of the ministry and a disabled chief executive is expected to be appointed, though the recruitment process has still to be finalised.

While the reactions of the 200 or so guests at the launch, disabled people, families and service providers, ranged from cautiously hopeful and optimistic to “realistic”, expectations will be high among the wider community. The work of the new ministry may not be completely plain sailing.

Questions have already been raised about the financial sustainability of the Enabling Good Lives scheme, and while there is no draft accessibility legislation yet, there is concern over the government’s stated approach. “The existing legislative approach does not provide a coherent or systematic process for progress towards removal of barriers and increased accessibility,” the group Auckland Disability Law said in a statement. Disabled people are also concerned about the non-prescriptive approach to accessibility issues being suggested by the government. The powers of the ministry’s governance board are limited, with no power of investigation, dispute resolution function or enforcement pathway. Accessibility legislation is due to be introduced to parliament later this month.

Disabled people have long been disappointed in an unresponsive and neglectful system. The 2020 Heather Simpson review of the health and disability system largely ignored disabled people, which left many in our community very angry. Poor treatment over many years has led to low levels of trust. There are still problems with the quality of data collection on disability and its use, although those issues are being improved.

There are some thorny systemic policy issues for the new ministry to deal with, not least being the eligibility criteria and service inequities between ACC and DSS.

Disabled adults are 55% more likely to be the victims of crime than the average New Zealander. There are widespread problems with a lack of accessible housing, the unemployment rate among disabled people is unacceptably high, there are problems with equitable access to education for disabled children, access to information and the built environment, and with digital access. Domestic violence and abuse figures are disgracefully high.

Part of the new ministry’s job will be to educate other government departments about responsibilities they have not fully met, a huge task. While Whaikaha won’t be responsible for advancing all these issues it will need to set an outstanding example of accessibility and model best practice in equitable employment to show the way.

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