Looking at the election policies stacked in front of the New Zealand public this year, I feel as though I have time-travelled back to the 1980s, writes disability advocate Colleen Brown.
I’ve always thought New Zealand was a a decent place to live, and a country based on “fairness”. I had a pretty standard post-war childhood and upbringing, which shaped the way I view New Zealand, a society where reason, logic and sensible debate can create change.
When our son Travers was born with Down syndrome some 40 years ago, everyone was supportive, kind and well-meaning, but so often the law lagged far behind any good intentions. Expectations about the life he would lead were limited because he was intellectually disabled. Disabled people, parents, whānau and organisations have fought for many years for inclusion, dignity and respect at every level of our society. Now, right now, looking at the election policies stacked in front of the New Zealand public, I feel as though I have time-travelled back to the 1980s.
The general public needs to understand that it is the policies we live with that disable people. We need policies that enable us to fully participate in our communities and in society in general. When policies are inclusive, it makes life so much easier. Accessible housing, public transport, community funding and employment are all basic rights. If they are eroded then life becomes extremely difficult and huge inequities are created. So, the big question for the disability community, as it is every three years, is, “How will we fare in this election?”
Every eligible voter should read the election policies on Policy.nz, where policies are sliced and diced into easily digestible portions. Concentrating on the four main political parties, and trying to be even-handed, the lack of awareness of and understanding about the needs and aspirations of the disabled community is apparent in the stated intentions in a number of the different parties’ policies. It needs to be noted that many of the Greens’ policies will resonate with the disability sector.
Prejudice and ignorance are laid bare for all to see. I feel as though I have been living in a parallel universe. Who are these people who would abolish the very government organisations we depend on to get justice for disabled whānau? As a volunteer disability advocate, I have used the Office of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) to drag a simple apology from a school protecting a teacher who thought it was OK to denigrate a disabled child in front of his classmates. The disability community constantly uses the HRC to check on how disabled people are being treated, the legislation that needs to be updated, our rights.
Looking at the key planned policies that are lifelines for disabled people – we will lose a number that make life bearable. Gone are the institutions the disabled community relies on to “test” existing laws and actions (Act). Gone is the relief from having to pay $5 prescription charges (National). Note to National – not all disabled people have a community services card. That $5 can mean the difference in an already skimpy budget, enabling extra rations of meat and veg. Gone are the fair pay agreements, the removal of which will disproportionately disadvantage disabled (Act and National).
Schools are screaming out for greater trained support for students with learning needs. The Greens acknowledge and address this among their 11 disability policies. The Greens also acknowledge the need for advocacy. An advocacy council was created under the fourth Labour government in 1989. The National government dismantled it when they gained power in 1990. Another hard-fought battle lost – 30 years of lost information about systemic issues confronting the disability sector.
Labour opts for the status quo – keeping subsidies and key commissions in place, which have made a substantial difference to the lives of many disabled people; winter energy payments, travel subsidies and free prescriptions all add up when your life is constrained by a limited income or benefit. One meaningful Labour policy that has flown under the radar is the tying of benefits to wage increases rather than the Consumer Price Index (CPI). This is a catch-up policy. Now disabled beneficiaries like Travers have his main benefit adjustments aligned to how superannuation is adjusted, which has been linked to the average wage increases for many years. Disabled people on the benefit want assurances that this policy will not be changed.
Having money for the basics that many of us take for granted is important for self-esteem and feeling that you are a valued part of society. The big tick to Labour comes in the form of Whaikaha – the Ministry of Disabled People. It is early days yet, and one newly fledged ministry cannot be all things to the disability sector; other ministries must pull their weight as well. But Labour needs to go further. The disability sector needs data. No party jumps on that issue. Child Poverty Action Group has examined a wide range of essential issues in a policy brief for this election, with recommendations on policy actions needed right now.
The New Zealand Disability Strategy is big on disabled people having choice and control over their lives. However, we still have constraints over the key areas of education and housing, through the lack of data enabling us and the government to plan for our futures. Special school rolls are full, not enough satellite classes exist, children enrolled in local schools need ongoing support in their classrooms; disabled people who are homeless are far down the list for social housing; we need data along with cross-party agreements for long-term solutions and gains.
Trying to find an accessible home is an ongoing challenge for disabled people, as there are not enough. Currently Kāinga Ora has a target to build at least 15% of its new homes to universal design standards. Disabled people, families and whānau have lobbied to shift that percentage higher. It makes sense when all the indicators point to a greater need for social housing for particularly the ageing population and those who are disabled. It is much cheaper to build to a universal design standard than retrofit existing homes.
The hugely challenging housing policy for the disabled renters is the right to evict tenants without cause (National). This is a harsh policy for the disability community. When Travers and his mates were looking for a flat, it was extremely difficult to find a landlord who would rent to them. Negative attitudes towards marginalised people run long and deep.
Let’s talk equality and equity. To be clear, for a disabled person to participate fully in our society they may need more resources than other citizens to achieve that. We used to call that “giving people a fair go”. A subsidy for the important things in life – transport, medicine, benefits. Equality is about equal rights, status and opportunities. Equity is about outcomes which come from justice and fairness and understanding that support should be given according to need.
It doesn’t matter how often politicians scream it, how many sound bites they use up saying it – people are not created equal. Some people are always going to need more to live a good life.
I know political parties will quickly assure the disability community that they aren’t being targeted; that they didn’t mean “them” in these draconian policies. But that’s the point. Many political parties don’t think about disabled people… at all.
Twenty-five percent of the voters in this country have a disability of some kind. If these policies come into being, and disabled people are discriminated against, the irony is we may not even have anywhere to go to complain because the Human Rights Commission may have been dismantled.
A country is judged on how it treats its most marginalised residents. In brief, the most marginalised citizen in New Zealand is a Māori woman or girl with a disability. They are among the poorest and most easily ignored. Is this how we want this “fair” and “decent” country of ours, and by association us, to be judged?
When you look at the candidates and parties on your voting papers, before you place your mark on that paper, take a moment to think about the disabled people you see in your community every day. After 40 years of fighting a very hard fight, I know for sure that if you make a disabled person’s life better, you make life better for everyone.