by Mary Schnackenberg

Editor’s note: Mary Schnackenberg is a long-serving member of Blind citizens NZ and secretary of Auckland Branch. She takes us through the history of Awhina House, Blind Low Vision NZ’s main Auckland premises for the past 26 years or so. Awhina House is set to be demolished and, as you’ll read, disappointingly little has been communicated about its replacement.

As I write, Awhina House may still be standing. I don’t know because communications to members about it and its replacement are next to non-existent. So why am I feeling so devastated? Why should I care?

From about April 1996 until the end of September 2022, Awhina House was the head office of the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind. 

The RNZFB is now trading as Blind Low Vision NZ so I will refer to them as BLVNZ in this article. But first, a little pre-Awhina House background.

Prior to 1964, the BLVNZ head office and the school for blind students were located in the Jubilee Building at 545 Parnell Road. In 1964, the school moved out to Homai. Adjacent to the Jubilee Building was the gymnasium which in 1976 was knocked down and replaced by a social hall. For many years, these buildings provided spaces for what we often refer to as peer support, blind people helping each other to live full and independent lives.

During the early 1990s, plans were made for what became known as Awhina House. At the time Awhina House was designed and built, I was Manager Library Services, and I followed the process closely. It took place prior to the UN Disability Convention, the New Zealand Disability Strategy and the creation of the RNZFB Constitution that upholds the principle of self-determination (Tino Rangatiratanga) of blind people. But in formulating the design of Awhina House, I remember exemplary engagement and consultation with management, staff and consumer organisations.

“Nothing about us without us” was in action. The entity responsible for property in those days, the Bledisloe Estate Trust (now Foundation Properties Ltd) went offshore to look at some blindness facilities and produced a report, available in all formats, that discussed design considerations and features. I even remember being part of the team who selected the architect from the companies who pitched for the chance to design the new building.

The design of Awhina House was to be in two separate and distinct parts. In one, there was space for the Library, Equipment Services, the computer department, rehabilitation and administration, and shared bookable meeting rooms. Several blindness consumer organisations, including Kāpō Māori Aotearoa (previously Ngāti Kāpo O Aotearoa) and Blind Citizens NZ, also had space.

In the other part of the building, the Recreation (Rec) Centre and the Cafeteria served as social and recreation areas. These spaces were perceived from the outset as common areas available for use by staff and consumer organisations, large and small. They were a place where people could meet, including their families and sighted supporters when appropriate. The gym, previously on the top floor of the sheltered workshops was relocated into purpose designed space in Awhina House where it was used by staff as well as members and clients.

One group, the blind indoor bowlers, wanted recreational space. Surely, it was argued, there were suitable facilities around Auckland to accommodate them. Senior management went on the hunt and could not find anywhere close to public transport that blind bowlers could congregate in, play their bowls, store their equipment, access kitchen facilities, and feel safe and included. So, their needs were respected and formed the basis of the size of the Rec Centre with lockable storage cupboards along one wall.

Other sports groups recognised just how close the Parnell site is to the Auckland Domain and asked to be able to congregate, store their gear, and be able to access the domain for outdoor sport if necessary. Later Goalball was introduced and the space designed for the bowlers was used for goalball training and games. A whole range of social activities took place after hours and at weekends, not disturbing working staff.

There was a store room in the basement, known to some as The Boys’ Room or the bunker. Inside, down a six-inch step designed to catch any sighted person who did not switch on the light quickly, was a massive refrigerator that held all kinds of bottles and cans of this and that with two door locks to secure the contents owned by the two major clubs who needed this storage.

From the outset, Awhina House was designed to be an appropriate building for accommodating staff and delivering services, as well as providing club rooms for current and future blindness groups to easily be able to run their activities. The two functions did not impact on each other, as simple security cards would let people go only where they were allowed to go.

That design proved to be fantastically successful. Blindness groups, run largely by blind people on our own, could continue to function much as we have done on the Parnell site as far back as people could remember. We could run regular events knowing that the gear we needed would be safely in a lockable storeroom or cupboard and we would not have to worry about transporting stuff in and out. Blind people volunteering for these roles could get on with running the activities without having to jump lots of hurdles which we would have faced if we were using community facilities. BLVNZ clients could also become familiar with the building so could come and go and use building facilities with a maximum of independence.

The whole design process meant everyone knew what was coming. There were models and diagrams openly available. The groups were so excited to see what was created that a number of them made significant donations to buy tables, chairs and so on. The Auckland Branch of Blind Citizens NZ put up $5,000 in cash which paid for one third of the PA system in the Cafeteria and Rec Centre. A couple of us as consumers worked with the senior audio technician in the library to choose what we felt would be a great PA system for that facility.

So why am I devastated about what has happened?

In September 2018, the RNZFB Board announced that BLVNZ premises would be moving to the retirement village complex. Awhina House would be pulled down, and BLVNZ would move to the ground floor of the first building with its frontage on Parnell Road. 

In November 2020, BLVNZ management agreed to several requests made by Auckland consumer organisations and we were promised ongoing engagement as design progressed. There was a sense of optimism that although the needs of our groups were changing, we could expect great things from the new facility. We were also promised Awhina House would not close until the new building was ready for us to move into. These promises have not been honoured and we have told this to the RNZFB Board.

Even while Awhina House remained standing, the Auckland Branch of Blind Citizens NZ has in recent times faced restrictions carrying on our meetings and regular activities. In 2020, COVID-19 government restrictions caused BLVNZ management to withdraw our security card access to Awhina House. That was reasonable at the time, but our access has still not been reinstated even though Government relaxed those measures in February this year.

We were also confined to using the Rec Centre and banned from the Cafeteria, which had previously been a common area. That was said to be so staff could have a secure social space because COVID-19 was still in the community, even though there was already plenty of secure space elsewhere in the building for staff to use.

We thought the security guards that were originally employed to check vaccine passes would no longer be needed, but they remained, now to keep an eye on us when carrying out our normal group activities. No evidence has been produced to show blind people are in some kind of danger if not supervised. If our meetings lasted more than four hours, we had to pay for the guards’ time at $50.00 per hour over and above the four hours. At least that decision was overturned by the RNZFB Board. New Zealand employers who are being urged to employ blind and low vision people should be safe in the knowledge that BLVNZ management does not trust us to manage our own behaviours and security as we have done for many years.

In the 90s, such care went into designing Awhina House for its diverse groups of users. Now, while its replacement is being established, our Branch has seen none of that. The lack of consultation and information is appalling. I fear the learnings from the collaborative process that stood Awhina House in good stead all these years won’t be carried through.

I’m the Branch Secretary and about this time, I have in previous years known and booked the dates of our general meetings. I like to be organised and take pride in keeping Branch members up to date. But I haven’t a clue when the new facilities will be open next year. We’ve been told it’s February.

Will the facilities be suitable? Will they support all our activities? Will we have simple secure access like we used to? Will we have storage so we don’t have to taxi stuff in and out for each event? Will we be scrutinised by security guards? Can we have a quiet drink after our meetings as we used to? When I find out, I’ll be able to let our Auckland Branch members know.

Note: Focus approached the BLVNZ Chief Executive John Mulka to give Management an opportunity to comment on the points raised in the article about a lack of engagement and consultation regarding the new premises and restrictions the Auckland Branch has faced in its activities.

John Mulka responded as follows:

“It would be unfair and inappropriate for me to comment on all the noted items without first having dialogue with the groups in Auckland so at this point I cannot comment in some detail. What I will share is that Awhina House was decommissioned on 1 October and the structure is due to be demolished so many of the items you noted are now not relevant, and do not apply to new spaces going forward. Further the presence of a third party on site during usage of all Blind Low Vision NZ facilities across the country is at the full expense of the organisation and has no linkage to the former Covid mandates and restrictions, but has everything to do with the health, safety and wellbeing of the groups who use our buildings in non-business hours.”

The response also conveyed excitement about multiple new facilities and renovations throughout the Auckland region, including regarding the Parnell site: “we are excited by the new modern, fit for purpose space that we will move our offices into in the early part of 2023.”