a hand going to a ballot box, one takes a straight path and one a wavy path
Image: Archi Banal

PoliticsOctober 9, 2023

Making elections accessible for everyone

a hand going to a ballot box, one takes a straight path and one a wavy path
Image: Archi Banal

Disabled people are often left off the agenda when it comes to election policy. But whether it’s making candidate events accessible or offering easier ways to vote, making sure everyone is informed and included is key. 

When Neelu Jennings decided to run for parliament she knew she couldn’t do it alone. The disability advocate, who is campaigning for the Green Party in the Hutt South electorate, is legally blind and has no sense of balance following a brain injury. This makes it hard for her to be oriented. “I struggle to find an event unless someone helps me find it,” she says. “The big barrier with accessibility is the amount of energy it takes: instead of going from A to B in a straight line, as a disabled person you go up and around, over and under and through to navigate around barriers.” 

Jennings has an assistant paid for by the Election Access Fund, an initiative that offers funding for electoral candidates with disabilities to assist in campaigning. She’s one of four people to successfully apply for money through the fund, which the Electoral Commission says has given out $45,349.15 during the 2023 election. Jennings’ assistant can do things like call ahead to venues to make sure that a stationary microphone will be available (since Jennings’ visual impairment means she needs to hold her notes close to her face); check the layout of a venue; and organise transport and appointments. 

Neelu Jennings, a brown skinned woman with shoulder length dark hair, reads from a sheet of paper held in her hands while speaking into a microphone
Neelu Jennings talks at a disability even in Kelston (Image: Facebook/supplied)

Nearly one in four people has some form of disability. New Zealand has some benefits for disabilities through MSD and a newly created Ministry for Disabled People. Given the centrality of disability in many lives, it’s worth asking why there is so little disability policy on offer this election. But because disabled people are also voters, it’s worth paying attention as well to how disabled people are included (or not) in campaigning, voting and representing the country. 

As disabled writer Henrietta Bollinger has pointed out, efforts to make politics more accessible haven’t yet brought more disabled people in parliament, even if politicians engage by using wheelchairs for a day and learning New Zealand Sign Language. It’s a frustration to Jennings, who worked with Mojo Mathers, New Zealand’s first profoundly deaf MP. Mathers advocated for the creation of the Election Access Fund. “I don’t know how Mojo [campaigned] before,” Jennings says. “It would have been way too much if I didn’t have that paid role to support me.” 

The Electoral Commission provides a variety of accommodations to make voting accessible for disabled people. There are limitations: for instance, blind and low vision people cannot cast a fully anonymous and independent vote, which advocates have criticised. This election, there’s a full range of election information in alternate formats for every event, including general and Māori voting. (Byelections will also follow the same process.) The Green Party has made its manifesto available in multiple accessible formats too; they’re only party to do so. 

a wheelchair in the spotlight in a row of ordinary chairs
The disabled community wants a seat at the election table (Image: Getty Images)

Telephone dictation voting has been extended to those overseas, and voting services for the Deaf community are now based in pre-existing Deaf community hubs to make it easier to engage. The Deaf voting services are available in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The Electoral Commission says it will update its disability strategy before the 2026 election. 

Enrolling to vote can be a challenge, too. Grace Wang is a support coordinator at Hōhepa Canterbury, an organisation that provides both residential and day programmes for adults with intellectual disabilities in Christchurch. She’s been leading the organisation’s election project. “Getting people enrolled has been a big chunk of the process – we have over 160 people and enrolling to vote online requires passports, drivers licences or RealMe accounts, which is practically difficult for us.” 

Wang has communicated extensively with the electorate office in Banks Peninsula, where most Hōhepa residents live, and it’s setting up a voting location for Hōhepa residents who want to vote somewhere that they know well. “Some people are more independent and want to vote in the community, in a library, and we support that too,” Wang says. 

a room with different accomodation signs on the wall, like sloced captioning and hearing aid loops
Accommodations can make attending election events and voting possible Image: Bianca Cross

Part of the election campaign is also making sure that people know who they’re voting for. Hōhepa hosted several local candidates in September, and Wang helped an advisory group of Hōhepa residents to prepare questions for them to answer. Nathan Beaven, a Hōhepa resident with a long-standing interest in politics (I met him last year at an event for disabled people to talk to Christchurch mayoral candidates) was one of them. 

“I wanted to ask them about youth crime, cost of living and healthcare,” he says. He was also interested in specific questions about disability benefits. Because his family are farmers, Beaven has decided to vote National in his electorate and for Act with his party vote. “I care about farming and getting the country back on track,” he says. 

To Beaven, voting is a responsibility. “We all have to vote and know what we care about.” Throughout Hōhepa’s election engagement, Wang and her team have wanted to emphasise the idea of mana and self-determination for people with disabilities. “We want everyone to know that they have a right to make their voice heard,” she says. 

Wang says that candidates having the opportunity to talk to disabled people is important to make sure that MPs have a picture of concerns for all their constituents. “It’s good for politicians to see what life for people who need support can be like, and they can see the engagement, that they ask good questions. We can see this going further in the future for engagement with local politicians.” 

Other disability organisations have hosted election events for disabled voters. IHC, an advocacy and charity group for people with intellectual disabilities, hosted a forum in Wellington, and Jennings recently attended an event for the disabled community and supporters called Uniting Our Voices in Kelston, a suburb in the Hutt. Making the event accessible required checking the venue had wheelchair access, creating a quiet room for autistic people, ensuring power plugs were accessible for people who have medical devices, and having sign language interpretation and captioning available on videos. But it was totally worthwhile, Jennings says. “Coming together was amazing for our Hutt community.” 

It’s moments like these that make the candidate excited about the possibilities of disability representation throughout the election and parliamentary process. “You campaign as a team, that’s the best part,” she says. “I would encourage anyone who wants to stand for parliament to do it; it really will make our community stronger.”

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