Making Parliament More Accessible

Our Executive Officer and I recently spoke to Parliament's Government Administration Committee as it was conducting an inquiry into the accessibility of services to Parliament. Blind Citizens NZ made a written submission and we appeared in person to support our submission and answer questions.
It's very important that all citizens of the country are able to exercise our citizenry right to tell our politicians what is concerning us and what we think they should be doing on our behalf. So for people with disabilities, and in our case our members are blind, deafblind or vision impaired, Parliament must strongly uphold the principles of accessibility throughout all its processes.
I started with the physical building and surrounding environment. We just want Parliament's buildings and facilities to meet the requirements set out in New Zealand Standard 4121 which defines access to public buildings by people with disabilities.
It is also critical that Parliament ensures all its published information is available in accessible formats. For blind people, this would include braille, large print, audio and well established electronic formats, and although it may seem at first that this would be prohibitively expensive, in fact with today's technology the cost is not prohibitive, provided Parliament adopts the right approach throughout the entire process of how it produces its information.
I urged Parliament to allow a variety of ways for people to exercise their citizenry right to make submissions. These should include braille, audio, by phone, email and online. Being able to make submissions online is increasingly important as blind people are more and more getting connected to the digital age. In fact for some of our community who are both deaf and blind, being able to communicate online in the new digital age is possibly the only option available to them and may well be a complete life changer for these people.
I drew the committee's attention to some features of the Parliament website that pose a real access barrier to blind, deafblind and vision impaired people. It is very unfortunate that currently the website is in fact not covered by the Government's own web standards. The web standards should be extended to include such websites as the Parliament website. Parliament's website must be fully accessible to people with disabilities.
Other things I touched on include:

  • Adding an audio description to Parliament TV, so blind viewers get a sense of the behaviours of MPs and others which is visibly evident but which will not be apparent to people who can't see the picture. For obvious reasons perhaps, I'm not holding out much hope on this point any time soon.
  • Parliament should have a comprehensive and up to date equal employment policy. This will encourage blind people and people with other disabilities to find employment at Parliament, and in fact I know some blind people have worked at Parliament and no doubt they have made a useful contribution as employees.
  • Local electoral offices should follow the same principles of physical access and accessible information and communication.
  • We have the same right as everyone else to information about our choice of candidates. Political campaigns involve public money. Parliament must ensure all election material issued to the public is available to blind people in alternative formats as of right.
  • Finally I referred to the possibility that a blind or vision impaired person might one day be elected to Parliament. Parliament must recognise and take responsibility for extra costs that might be incurred by an MP because of their disability. We tend to think of these as disability costs, but often they arise only because common practices might act to exclude someone with a disability. If you hand me a printed piece of paper, I will need some assistance to read it. But if you email that same information, I can read it directly. So if I was an MP, and I needed funding to read pieces of paper, is it really fair to think of that as my problem? We say it is Parliament's problem. I urged the committee to adopt the principle that people with disabilities should be able to fully participate in the process and the culture of Parliament.
  • Also when it comes to actually casting our vote, blind people cannot vote without actually sharing our vote with someone else. I acknowledge the steps taken to make this process as confidential as possible, but I emphasised the point that blind people believe we are entitled to cast a fully confidential vote like other people take for granted.