As we celebrate Suffrage 125, let us not forget that just as disabled people were excluded in 1893, many continue to feel excluded from society today, writes Hannah Gibson.
This week, we celebrated 125 years of women finally getting the vote in Aotearoa. It’s indeed something to celebrate. It took a petition of 32,000 individuals (25,000 women) and much resistance for women to get the right to vote. We can be proud that we became the first country where the suffrage pioneers succeeded and open the door for Māori women to get the vote at the same time (but only if they were landowners – discrimination much?).
But there’s something that bothers me. No, I’m not denying the importance of celebrating this incredible moment in history. I do, however, want us to reflect on something.
In 1893 and well into the 20th century, disabled women, men and children were often institutionalized, particularly, many of those who were deaf, blind, epileptic, lived with physical impairments, learning disorders and psychiatric conditions. By segregating them away from the rest of society, institutions were promoted as the best way to ‘accommodate’ the disabled population.
Disabled immigrants were also discouraged to settle by way of the 1882 Imbecile Passengers Act, where ship captains were fined if they brought any ‘cripples, idiots, lunatics, infirm, blind, deaf and dumb’.
As an immigrant to this country, if I would’ve arrived during this period, I’d be in an institution because of my rare and little-understood health conditions. Dr Huhana Hickey, a female disabled Māori advocate who inspired me to write this by kindly sharing her experiences and views, would’ve been hidden away from society too.
So while we celebrate this anniversary of women suffrage, we’re both very much aware that we would’ve been barred from voting.
‘But that was a long time ago!’ I hear many of you cry.
Let me share some insights as to why the historical mistreatment and oppression of disabled people hasn’t vanished but instead changed in shape. It’s subtle.
It’s important to point out that since women’s identities aren’t homogenous, not everyone will feel the same way as we do about these issues, including other disabled and indigenous women.
“I still, in 2018, struggle to see what I can celebrate,” said Dr Hickey, who attended Wednesday’s breakfast celebration in Aotea Square, Auckland and was frustrated by the lack of diversity at the event. Although she was honoured to participate in the ‘What Women Want’ series, she noted both disabled women and trans women were largely absent from any presence in this year’s celebrations.
At the events this month at the Beehive in Wellington, friends commented on the noticeable lack of sign language interpreters, which excludes deaf people from participating. It was only last year that there were no interpreters for the political debate between Prime Minister Jacinda Arden and National’s Bill English. According to Dr Hickey, in 2017, some disabled women (and men) were unable to vote independently or physically access voting polls because they lacked assistance to leave their houses.
We see the disabled community underrepresented in the workforce, being three times less likely to be employed. Society and many industries have expectations of how much people should be able to achieve, expectations that were created for able-bodied people. This leaves many disabled people as long-term beneficiaries and not that far above the poverty line because it’s not easy to find employment.
Disabled Māori and Pasifika persons deal with compounded discrimination, such as being less likely to receive medical care, education, employment and support. The He hauā Māori: Findings from the 2013 Disability Survey found that disabled Māori were more underrepresented in the workforce, education and are more likely to have a poorer quality of life and material well-being than Pakeha.
Ableism and discrimination are present in the way that certain citizens in Aotearoa are pushed to the peripheries of politics, debates, health care and education.
Only recently, the Minister for Disability Issues Carmel Sepuloni and Labour Minister Iain Lees-Galloway spent a day in a wheelchair to get an idea of what it is like to be disabled. Red Nicholson aptly commented, “I’m struck by how some able-bodied people feel the need to simulate the experience of disability for themselves before they’re prepared to accept that accessibility is an issue.”
Disability shouldn’t be simulated. Instead, we should create spaces, politics, debates, celebratory events, voting options, public transport, and resources that are accessible and give a voice to those who’ve been treated as vulnerable. It shouldn’t just be an acknowledgement of how tough it is to be disabled.
Yes, many public spaces are physically accessible, but we have a long way to go. Kiwi organisation Access Alliance is seeking for minimum standards to be written into legislation so that we can all live (disabled and non-disabled) in an accessible Aotearoa. What’s great about Access Alliance is that they’re fighting for an inclusive society, where accessibility is more than just a removal of physical barriers. It also means making things like technology, resources and information on websites accessible too.
My main point is: people shouldn’t have to experience disability to learn about the issues. And if society and employment were geared to accommodate everyone, non-disabled people would benefit too. Let’s be honest, an unhealthy work culture is causing ever rising burnouts and mental health issues.
Basically, the system isn’t really working that well for anyone. And equality isn’t about bringing people in from out in the cold, but acknowledging their value and potential. Inclusion isn’t inclusion if it doesn’t celebrate diversity.
So, as we celebrate, let us also note that just as disabled people were excluded in 1893, many feel excluded from society today.
“I look forward to the day I see a disabled MP have the portfolio of ‘Minister for Disabilities Issues’ and the day the director of the office for disabilities issues is disabled,” said Dr Hickey.
“I also relish the day that disabled are at the table of every corner of leadership that exists and that [there’s] diversity of the disability community where Maori, Pasifika, LGBTQI and migrant disabled are in those roles of leadership too. Not just the dominant groups currently sitting there. They say nothing about us without us. Let’s put this into practice.”