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Source: Human Rights Commission

By Paula Tesoriero MNZM, Disability Rights Commissioner

Worldwide, the response by governments to COVID-19 have emphasised that we are all in this together. It got me thinking about whether we can stay in this together. By staying in this together, we have a fighting chance of achieving the catch-cry “leave no one behind”.

In rebuilding our world, can we achieve a more inclusive society? Will the 15 per cent of the global population – the 1 billion people who are disabled – be front and centre, or will we be left behind? 

This Thursday 3 December is International Day for Persons with Disabilities. The United Nations theme is Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 World.

We must ensure we give voice to disability rights in this pandemic build-back.

The UN believes that disability inclusion will result in a COVID19 response and recovery that better serves everyone, more fully suppressing the virus, as well as building back better. It will provide for more agile systems capable of responding to complex situations, reaching the furthest behind, first.

We know that the emergency measures have been immensely challenging for disabled people in disrupting essential support networks. It became apparent very quickly in New Zealand that existing gaps in services and policy approaches were exacerbated for disabled people.

As the Disability Rights Commissioner, I was closely involved in monitoring the impact on the 1 in 4 New Zealanders who are disabled. 

Issues that put the wellbeing of disabled people at risk during Level 4 Lockdown included not getting Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), problems with accessing supermarkets, and delays in providing official public health information in accessible formats.

Some people with neuro-disabilities and learning disabilities faced judgement for not being familiar with the new social ‘norms’ of queues, masks, and physical distancing.

The digital divide created real challenges for those disabled people who simply could not access online information. This was also an issue for some disabled children learning at home, without tactile and hard copy resources, though this was eventually mostly remedied.

A common issue raised with me was the lack of usual supports such as respite care not being available creating real stress and pressure for families.

Perhaps one of our biggest learnings will be seen in the absence of disability data. It’s an old truism that if you are not counted, you don’t count. It is vital that we collect good information about disability so that we have more than anecdote to rely on about the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people and can better plan for future events.

Because of our excellent public health response, we have not had to confront the health service rationing decisions as seen overseas, but when we face a lifetime of poor attitudes and barriers in which disability can be seen as ‘a life not worth having’, it is not surprising that many disabled New Zealanders were scared and felt powerless that the state might have to judge whose lives do and don’t matter.

For gaps to be immediately resolved in future, plans need to be integrated at all levels within government and across agencies, in partnership with disabled people as contemplated by Article 4.3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The pandemic has shown us how we can work differently. Flexible employment arrangements and greater reliance on technology all have the potential to enrich the lives of disabled people and be the circuit-breaker needed to improve the unemployment rates for disabled people. Businesses looking for that edge in the new environment should want to make their services accessible as 25 per cent of the population is a large market share.

Disabled people are no stranger to the isolation, restrictions and exclusions that New Zealanders experienced. Suddenly, non-disabled people experienced some of the things we face in our daily lives. If we all hold on to this, we might help change attitudes about disability. 

I believe the pandemic has unified the disability sector domestically and globally – joining forces and amplifying voices gives me hope for a brighter future.

In addressing underlying inequity, we must ensure disabled people have a voice to drive the step-change needed across so many policy domains.  I’ll be focused on housing, violence, employment, education, improved data and evidence and access to health and initiating a national conversation about attitudes towards disability and disabled people. 

Whether we can create a more inclusive world as we rebuild depends on our collective advocacy and calls to action to address the equity gaps for disabled people that have existed for far too long and that were exposed during the pandemic response.

This is up to all of us. Let’s “stay in this together”, learn from things that could have been done better, amplify the things done well and ensure no one is left behind.