John Mulka, Blind Low Vision NZ Chief Executive, shares his observations from Canada and casts fresh eyes over our state of play.
What does a person with a broken leg have in common with parents of young children and people with deteriorating sight?
If that’s you, it’s likely you think more carefully about how to get around in your day-to-day life, than what ‘able-bodied’ and independent individuals consider.
It seems that it’s not until we’re in the shoes of people wondering how they might tackle a flight of stairs – or indeed where that flight of stairs is – that it is truly apparent how much of our world is designed for people with specific abilities. This has been the default ‘way that things are’ for a very long time. It is true for New Zealand, and many other places around the world.
The word for this is ‘accessibility’ (or lack of). Barriers to accessibility are in every part of life: from getting around, to accessing information, technology, employment and attitudinal challenges. But the crux of it is accessibility’s connection to other fundamental human rights associated with education, workforce, and participating in the community. For example if you can’t access specific learning materials in a format you can read, how then do you gain the education you desire? If you can’t see the bus coming to signal to the driver to stop, how do you ensure you can get to your job on time? Barriers like these are unfair, and unnecessary.
Fortunately for some countries, their default setting is now being reconstructed to challenge the unnecessary distinction made between disability and ability, and to rebuild the pathway to fundamental human rights as accessible for all.
In my home country of Canada, the Accessible Canada Act was passed in June this year. Nothing changes overnight, but for my friends and previous colleagues in that part of the world the future is looking good.
No longer can accessibility barriers go unrecognised. Accessibility can mean life or death and a previous colleague who is blind knew this all too well. He was prescribed medication without accessible labelling, which led him to an accidental overdose. It could have cost him his life. He has been campaigning for the change that is now happening in Canada, and his story is not unlike many others here in New Zealand.
So, what is the progress like here in New Zealand?
This question has been top of mind for me since the opportunity to move to New Zealand to lead Blind Low Vision NZ (formerly Blind Foundation) arose. I couldn’t believe my luck. As a country, your reputation precedes you – and I mean that in all the right ways.
I have now been here three months, and that’s enough time for me to observe that the appetite and the opportunity for New Zealand to change its default ‘way that things are’ for accessibility is now. It is incredibly exciting.
Businesses and leaders have talked prolifically about the benefits of paying attention to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. There are still challenges and it will take time, but its progress is now under the microscope and that’s a good thing.
Only more recently has the New Zealand business sector begun rising to the challenge of accessibility in the name of people with disabilities. I take my hat off to the progressive New Zealand businesses who have sought guidance and action to embrace accessibility with open arms. Over the last few years, Blind Low Vision NZ noticed an uptick in this interest, which led to the Accessibility Tick and Access Advisors initiatives as a way to stimulate action by uniting expertise with this appetite.
Beyond this, markers of progress are gaining momentum. Just last week Auckland Transport approved an adoption of an accessibility action plan that will ensure accessibility of its services and infrastructure are a key focus. But we are also feeling growing pains. As an example the unlegislated arrival of e-scooters is an accessibility problem, and one which Auckland Transport recently pointed the finger at NZTA for a nationalised solution.
I believe New Zealand is now ready for legislation to provide the framework and the clarity around what to do with accessibility nationally, that so many are calling for. Accessibility legislation would break down barriers, advance human rights, promote fairness and equality, learn from overseas accessibility, and deliver on our international commitments (notably the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which New Zealand signed in 2007).
Last week, thanks to Wellington’s infamous winds, I missed a speaking engagement at the invitation of Hon Ruth Dyson and Hon Maggie Barry (fortunately my colleague spoke on my behalf). They lead the Parliamentary Champions for Accessibility Legislation, and it was an honour to be invited to share lessons from Canada’s accessibility legislation that can help New Zealand.
The very fact that such a group exists with cross-party leadership is an incredible place for accessibility legislation to progress from. Already, the government has been developing a work programme to accelerate accessibility alongside the Access Alliance, of which Blind Low Vision NZ is an active member.
The key message from me is that, unlike the complexities of the Canadian government, New Zealand is in a privileged position with much of the groundwork already laid to push forward with progressive legislation that would have life-changing impact on people with disabilities (by the way, that’s about one in four New Zealanders).
An aging population means New Zealand is set to see an increase in people with access needs. Legislation will support us for this rising challenge. The time is now so let’s make 2020 the year we introduce access legislation and advance the human rights of people with disabilities and for all New Zealand.
Show your support for accessibility legislation using #AccessLaw2020 or visit accessalliance.org.nz to find out more.