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Source: Human Rights Commission

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, rau rangatira mā . Tena koutou katoa . Ko Paula Tesoriero ahau  ko au te te Kaihautu Tika Hauātanga mō te Kāhui Tika Tangata ki Aotearoa.  Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.  Mauri tangata, Mauri ora  

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today. I’ve specifically focused on making a few key points in this speech and then allowing sufficient time for questions and other’s thoughts. So, I’m aiming to talk for no more than 20 minutes.

It’s really special to be part of your celebration of 75 years. Not only has Blind Citizens NZ survived 75 years, in fact its thrived, which is a testament to the dedication of your staff and Board, past and present. In my time, Jonathan and Rose have been at the helm, so I thank them for their ongoing commitment to working together.

Adapting and evolving over time means your organisation remains connected to your constituency, and still in touch with the issues faced by the blind and low vision and the Deafblind community.

There will be thousands upon thousands of people who’s lives Blind Citizens NZ has supported and enriched over those 75 years. So, you should be proud of what your mahi has achieved for those you support and advocate for.

I think many organisations such as yours face a multitude of challenges in our increasingly complex and fast changing world. Aotearoa New Zealand has suffered through a particularly tumultuous and difficult decade – the Canterbury earthquakes, the Christchurch mosque attacks, Covid 19 and now the Delta variant.

Lives have been turned upside down. Many of us have struggled – it’s been tough on most of us – but more so for many Māori, Pasifika or disabled people. This clearly puts strains on organisations such as yours – and I’m not sure we often acknowledge that. So I want to do that now.

This audience will know that under relatively ‘normal’ circumstances our ableist world is taxing. I don’t need to tell you – or remind you of how disabled people are over-represented in poor social outcomes statistics. And Covid is making it worse but also more critical that organisations like yours exist.

We currently face significant human rights challenges

In my view we are currently grappling with some of our most challenging modern-day human rights issues with COVID. There is no neat fix, no perfect answer to the many questions and issues arising. But I want to explore some of them with you.

When we talk about human rights, it’s important to also talk about responsibilities. We all have responsibilities towards each-other. In the COVID context, that means we have a responsibility to adopt public health measures to reduce the spread of COVID.

But for some in the disability community, those measures are impossible: mask wearing for some and for some getting vaccinations. This has the potential to impact employment, entry to events and wider social participation.

Of course, one can be exempt from wearing a mask or being vaccinated, but we are already seeing at the HRC a significant increase in complaints and queries about disabled people being excluded from accessing places and the stigma associated with having such exemptions. And then for some disabled people, having un-vaccinated people in their home is too risky if there are underlying health conditions.

Public health messages must be clear and easy to understand. I suspect that’s why we’ve heard less about the exemptions and why they’re needed. But, I along with the DPA, and ODI, am working with Government to improve this messaging about masks.

It may be that the policy settings around exemptions need changing- so a particular process is needed to prove the exemption is needed. And yes, that brings with it the normal barriers of accessing doctors many in our community face.

One of the most challenging issues our disability community is facing is anattempt to balance the rights to personal safety with the rights of disabled people to personal safety and access to the services we’re entitled to. I know blind and low vision people have experienced some poor behaviour in a range of places.

This is not going away overnight. If we are moving away from the elimination strategy, these issues will be exacerbated. So, it’s really important to advocate strongly for clear messaging and clear policy settings.

I’m not making a particular stance on whether we should stick to the elimination strategy or not- but what I am saying is that it is more important than ever as restrictions are lifted, we understand the potential impact on disabled people who already experience barriers to the health system and for whom the initial roll-out of the vaccine did not appropriately prioritise.

For these reasons, it is vital New Zealand addresses the underlying equity issues now because of COVID, not use COVID as a reason to not move at pace. Now is the time to expedite supports, interventions and policy changes. Individuals having to make complaints and then remedies for breaching rights not being sufficient is not the long-term way out of this.

If there was ever a time to be working together across our community and with government and business, it is now. It was disappointing that at the beginning of this Delta outbreak we didn’t appear to have learnt from last year, and we were facing some of the same issues and making the same mistakes.

That said, I think our community was incredibly galvanised and responsive and some of the networks with government we were both involved in establishing last year meant some things have been acted on more quickly. Now we have a dedicated Covid hotline for disabled people to support those who have problems getting to a vaccination and options for in-home vaccines.

In tandem with others, we have worked with supermarkets – engaging with their corporate affairs teams to support them to educate their staff, and to their credit they’ve ]been very supportive of this. I know DPOs have done similar things.

We’ve worked with the various local authorities to try and get these messages out to the bus drivers. And just yesterday I wrote to DPMC and the MoH to highlight the critical need for clearer messaging around mask exemptions because it can’t be up to the DPA, HRC, and businesses to create policy to respond. And like the DPOs, we’ve raised many matters at the various forums stood up across government to address these issues.

It’s vital that our mantra of nothing about us without us is emphasised now and that we are at the table when decisions are made and things designed.

At the Commission, we have recently engaged resource to work with us on trying to bring the human rights lens across all of these current and emerging COVID challenges. It’s not easy, there is no simple neat fix, but it is really important we as the Commission have clear stances on this and can advise and assist.

Attitudes

I now want to move on to talk a bit about attitudes: at the heart of some of the things we are seeing with COVID is about attitude or lack of awareness.

I understand some people react out of fear of the unknown, but this is the time for our community to raise awareness, not retreat back which would be far easier.

That’s why I’m focussing on challenging those attitudes – at the coalface not because of COVID, but like many things, COVID increases the need for a response.

Project Mobilise

Some of you will have been involved with Project Mobilise – in the workshops or online. I thank you for that – your views are incredibly important to informing the programme – and upping the chances of success.

Project Mobilise – which is a working title by the way – aims to address these fundamentally discriminatory and harmful social attitudes towards disability.

These are the attitudes we experience every day – the attitudes that come from a legacy of deficit thinking. Tāngata whaikaha and disabled people are often invisible – left out of legislative policy and planning cycles, and entrenching Ableist structures.

We want to change that. This programme aims to support our community to tell its own stories, in our own way – proudly and boldly. To be protagonists and key players of our narratives. To control our portrayal. We need to stop this otherness we’ve lived with for a long time – and Project Mobilise is going to be part of that revolution. 

Our goals are for Project Mobilise to complement and strengthen existing advocacy work with extra resources to support change. Ultimately our goal with Project Mobilise is to redefine what we mean by disability – so understanding increases and we can identify and articulate how we are disabled in different contexts. We want our community to be acknowledged as a community with strengths to offer a diverse world.

We’re currently still in our codesign strategy phase – but we hope to start having some insights from that soon and we hope to have a plan for moving forward in the new year.

The Commission is committed to being a te Tiriti based organisation. So, everything I do, explicitly and implicitly, acknowledges the issues experienced by tāngata whaikaha are discrete, unique in Aotearoa’s context – and forms an important aspect of Project Mobilise.

Again, unfortunately, Covid has affected our ability to move swiftly and we’ve had to pivot to working from home and online hui, but we will get there. We look forward to your support and to sharing this way forward.

It’s my view that policy levers are one very important way to effect change. But so too is addressing underlying attitudes and ableism.

Project Mobilise and COVID, are two of my top priorities. Alongside those the priority areas I’m working on are Housing, Education, Health and Violence and Abuse (with our report on this coming out this year) and a set of Justice related issues.

Attitudes are critical across all of them. Of course, changing attitudes alone won’t fix those issues. It’s a combination of attitudes, policy levers, networking and building relationships, and various other interventions. In the interests of time, I won’t talk about these priority areas, but happy to take questions on them.

Summing up

I want to finish with a few points.  Firstly, your theme of working together is critical. One of the criticisms people always raise with me is a perception that the disability sector is divided and hard to work with. Now we can refute that or accept it is a perception and work to change it.

I’m taking every opportunity to say that now more than ever we need the sector needs to work together for the greater cause of improving the lives of disabled people.

Secondly, I talked about the balancing of rights and responsibilities and the fact we are at one of the most important times in our modern history where the need to get this right will have a huge impact on our community.

Finally, I talked about attitudes and Project Mobilise and encourage you to get involved.

Let’s keep working together.

MIL OSI