Jonathan Godfrey, National President

They’re tearing up the street around the corner from my home; it’s been going on for about three months so far, and it won’t be done until May apparently. The question you might ask is “How did I know?” Well, I know the work is happening because the traffic is being diverted, we’re running over extra bumps, and the surface is broken up and there are some big holes. I know all that because I am a passenger in a vehicle using this stretch of street at least six times a week.

I also know, though, because the local council officer in charge of communicating what is happening has me on his email list. 

I’m somewhat fortunate to be there though. I only get the information because I made myself known to the council as a person who made a submission on the proposed upgrade to the closest intersection to my home, the removal of the pedestrian crossing, and the installation of lights at the next intersection about 150m further away. The proposal includes turning this road from a fairly busy wide two-lane thoroughfare into a 4 lane, dual carriageway, which is why the pedestrian crossing has been removed. In the other direction there is another set of lights, but if the original proposal had been put in place, I wouldn’t be able to get across this road without walking more than 250m in either direction. 

This monumental change is definitely going to have an impact on my life, but how did the people seeking feedback from local residents expect me to give them that feedback if they didn’t tell me about the proposal? The footpath outside my house is not going to be affected, so the documents that went out did not need to come to my home. Even if the documents had been delivered, there was no effort made to ensure that I would be able to read them, let alone understand the plans laid out by the engineers.

I only learned of the proposal because a local advocate for pedestrian access knew it is so close to my home. I was motivated to contribute and while I don’t like all the changes that were made, one new part of the updated proposal is definitely important to me. Courtesy of submissions made, they decided to add in a third set of lights about 30m away from my street’s intersection which will help people get across the four lanes of traffic.

What matters right now though, is that I am getting the information I need to make sure I can plan my walking in such a way that minimises problems I might encounter as the street, the footpaths, and all the hidden water systems are being modified. At the time of writing this column, I know that even if I could get across the street, I would find the footpath over there is totally unusable; I know not to even bother crossing over, and I won’t plan to walk there until I learn it’s all fixed up and ready for pedestrians.

There are so many aspects of what I’ve described that relied on humans, not systems, to make sure the information I needed has found its way to me. One person reached out to me to tell me the proposal was being considered by council; I needed council staff to explain some of the information they were providing to the public so that I could make my submission; and, I still need that council staff member to keep sending out the updates to his list of interested people. But, how would I know about the impact of the road works otherwise?

Like many of you, I’ve been following the plight of people whose lives have been turned upside down by Cyclone Gabrielle and other extreme weather events over the season that is supposed to be called “summer”. Unlike many residents of Palmerston North, I learned that we were being asked by our council to “conserve water”; I found out because an email went out to all staff at work telling us why we were asked to work from home. I didn’t get any information from the council directly on this topic, and everyone I asked about conserving water that doesn’t work for the university didn’t know about the council’s request. I decided to look at the Palmerston North City Council website to find out more, and discovered that it had nothing to do with our drinking water, but the waste water treatment plant was under pressure and minimising our waste water would help. The website said not to use washing machines, dishwashers, or for us to take showers until further notice. But, if it wasn’t for the efforts of one person at work, how would I know that we were being asked to take any action? Furthermore, how would I know to have looked at a website to learn what the owner of that website wanted me to know?

You might think I’d hear about the council request on the radio, the TV, or perhaps even Facebook. Well no, I didn’t, because I wasn’t looking for this sort of information. Thankfully, our rainfall in town was little different to what we got in December. Why would I worry about drinking water if the sun is shining enough to hang out the washing? 

After I’d received the email from work, I was chatting with friends; they were utterly oblivious about this situation, but again, how would they have known we had a waste water problem? Our conversation was focused on the perils being experienced by friends, family, and plenty of complete strangers in places that aren’t all that far away really.

There must have been hundreds of blind, deafblind, vision impaired or low-vision people among the hundreds of thousands of people in the north and east of the North Island whose lives were dramatically, sometimes tragically, affected. 

When it comes time to review how well we did as a country in protecting our people from another weather-related emergency, will we find out that getting information to people was, yet again, a problem? We know that the Civil Defence warning systems that are supposed to send alerts to our mobile phones did not work in Auckland well enough.

By the time you read this edition of Focus, we’re all supposed to have completed our Census forms. This is an obligation on everyone, and if you think back to last time, you’ll remember that Census 2018 was a bit of a mess to say the least. Census 2018 had the lowest response rate of all censuses conducted in NZ. The plan was that we’d get better response rates because more of us would complete our forms online. In short, some lessons were learned, and chief among them was that there is a massive digital divide in NZ. The reliance on people using the internet to complete their census obligations was deemed a resounding failure by the international experts. What is good news is that Statistics NZ started to listen to the right people, including Blind Citizens NZ, and your experience should have been much better in 2023 than it was in 2018.

We’ve got Braille (note the capital B there, it matters), large print, audio, and supposedly better trained Census workers. What we have not seen is widespread notification of the ways in which blind, deafblind, vision impaired and low-vision people could be supported by the extra efforts made by Statistics NZ. 

Some people might think sending out public information is a responsibility of a service provider, while others say it is the responsibility of the providers of the information. What is more important though is that there is still a chance that blind and low-vision people did not get the information they needed to make the census a less troublesome, perhaps even enjoyable, experience.

What is increasingly evident is that we are needing to find ways to make sure that we each are able to get the information we need in order to exercise our rights and responsibilities as citizens. How will I know about the next issue? Would I have been able to receive the information needed to look after my family if we’d been caught up in the path of Cyclone Gabrielle? How would I know anything if the internet wasn’t’ an option for me, or if the cellular network was down, like it was for many kiwis in recent times?

Having just one source of information is probably not going to be good enough. We’re going to need good networks, options for communications, reliable and timely alerts and notifications, and that means we’ll also need the skills to use those different methods for getting information.

It seems to me that we all need to use Cyclone Gabrielle as a bit of a wake-up call, and we need to be clearer about our needs in this technology-driven world we are living in. For example, so many Government agencies and companies are putting information on their websites or using their own apps. If we don’t have a decent computer with the adaptive technology we need, as well as a modern smart phone, are we being put at risk by the very systems that are supposed to support us in times of need?

Making sure other blind, deafblind, vision impaired and low-vision people are going to be safe when the next civil emergency comes along is an important part of the work Blind Citizens NZ is doing. You can play your part in keeping our people safe by passing information onto people before they need it. 

Climate change is making floods and storms more frequent and intense, so let’s all get better prepared for the next one now.