This was the theme of our three-day National Conference held in Auckland last weekend, from 10 to 12 October. Now just one week on, I have pretty much recovered. Last year we could not afford our usual three-day conference so people came this time really highly motivated to contribute and enjoy themselves.

I’ll start by sharing some of the observations I made during my opening address as President, and then go on to quickly summarise the main outcomes.

What do we really mean when we talk about rights?

This was the theme of our three-day National Conference held in Auckland last weekend, from 10 to 12 October. Now just one week on, I have pretty much recovered. Last year we could not afford our usual three-day conference so people came this time really highly motivated to contribute and enjoy themselves.

I’ll start by sharing some of the observations I made during my opening address as President, and then go on to quickly summarise the main outcomes.

What do we really mean when we talk about rights?

New Zealand does have legislation that, by law, means people are not allowed to discriminate against us on the grounds of disability. You can find this in the Bill of Rights, which applies to the Government and what we might loosely define as the public service, or people carrying out public functions, and you will find it in the Human Rights Act, which applies in more general situations such as in employment and when you receive a service. We also find in the Building Act, for example, there is a requirement that public buildings and facilities must be accessible to people with disabilities so we can carry out our normal everyday transactions and also so we can be employed and work in these buildings. And in the Education Act we find that we have the same rights as everyone else to enrol at a state school and receive an education.

It is interesting to realise that these rights have been in our law for at least the last twenty years. Yet here we are in 2014 asking the Government to make our rights real. Why are they not already real?

One reason I think is that there is a real lack of specific guidance to people in the community that tells them what their obligations are to disabled people. A school, for example, might know that when parents come in to enrol a blind child, the school has to enrol that child. But when it comes to that child having the same right as other children in the school to receive an education, does that school really know what that means? Chances are the answer is no. There is insufficient information that tells schools what is really expected of them. And of course the issue doesn’t just arise when the blind child turns up at the gate. For example if the school has invested in a new age computerised learning environment that many schools are now creating, if that environment is not accessible, then there may be little the school can do to fix that when a child with a disability comes to enrol at that school. Yet there is currently no real consequence for the school that creates an inaccessible learning environment. The right to an inclusive education just isn’t real.

Now take the building act as another example. Public buildings are meant to be accessible so we as disabled people can visit them, carry out our everyday transactions, and even work in them. In this case, there is information that tells us what that means in practice. That comes from what we know as New Zealand Standard 4121. But over the years, the government agencies responsible for this activity, and even our courts, have tended to interpret the building act in a way that really means this standard need not be followed. And of course, if a developer doesn’t have to follow the standard, then what you get are buildings that are not as accessible as they should be. So they may not have accessible toilets; they may not have talking lifts. That is why we find even new buildings that don’t conform to the standard that is supposed to be there to define what an accessible building is. The right to have full access to public buildings and facilities just isn’t real.

To me there is something in our culture that says to people who provide all the services we need: yes we know disabled people have rights, but they don’t really mean anything to me. There is a lot of genuine good will towards people with disabilities, but still, for example, a school principal can say I can go ahead and plan my school the way I want it and who knows, I might never have a disabled student at my school. A developer can say, I can go ahead and build my building and I don’t have to conform to NZ Standard 4121. The kiwi culture seems to be that when we are confronted by someone with a disability, we’ll do our best and deal with the issue then. But somehow we just don’t seriously plan in advance to ensure our services are accessible to people with disabilities. In my view, agencies like the Human Rights Commission and the Office for Disability Issues have not done enough to really challenge that prevailing culture.

This must change. New Zealanders are by nature easy going, but I think most of us are genuinely law abiding and we will follow the law once it is spelled out to us. The United Nations has challenged New Zealand to address the issue of our rights by defining them more clearly in legislation such as the Human Rights Act. It is critical that this be done. In claiming our rights, we can’t demand absolutely everything. Every country defines rights in terms of reasonableness. We need to know what we can reasonably demand. For example, can we demand that all buses in the public transport system have talking announcements that tell us what bus it is and what stop we are at. Can we demand that the new electronic ticketing machines we are seeing more and more be accessible so we can use them just like everyone else. Can we demand that all commercial websites meet recognised accessibility standards. I realise that “demand” is possibly a strong word, but if we are talking about rights, then what in fact can we demand?

Right now, we actually don’t know. If our rights that flow from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are to be real, we need to know what they are. We need to know what we can demand, and perhaps more importantly, we need to know what is off limits, when are we demanding too much.

During the open day, we received the following presentations:

  • Official Opening – Megan McCoy, Director, Office for Disability Issues.
  • How people go about making a complaint to the Human Rights Commission – David Rutherford, Chief Human Rights Commissioner.
  • How to use the Office of the Ombudsman – Dame Beverley Wakem DNZM CBE, Chief Ombudsman.
  • Government and disability – getting a better deal for disabled people – Chris Laidlaw, Patron Blind Citizens NZ.
  • “Touching the Future – Accessible touch screen technology” – Jonathan Mosen, Director Mosen Consulting and Chief Executive
  • Auckland Disability Law’s role as the current provider of disability law services and expanding into a national service – Neera Jain, Manager Auckland Disability Law.
  • What domestic and sexual violence means for disabled people, domestic violence legislation, the current lack of service provision and political and attitudinal barriers to change and, what we can do about it – Debbie Hager University of Auckland / DVD (Domestic Violence and Disability) and Martine Abel-Williamson World Blind Union Asia Pacific Regional Coordinator, UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

These were all captivating presentations with numerous questions and comments from the floor.

We made a number of key decisions which will impact on the work we will do as an organisation over the next few years. I won’t give the formal resolutions but I’ll just list them briefly in no particular order:

  • Consistent with our right to Government information, we will be advocating for accessibility standards for all government websites and documentation produced by government departments and any organisations funded by the Government for services to the community.
  • We are asking for more clarity around the employment services provided by the Blind Foundation.
  • We will be advocating for the Blind Foundation to provide instructions in all the usual accessible formats for equipment they supply, including any serial numbers and Warrantee information.
  • We are calling for blind and vision impaired students to have improved access to adaptive technology to meet their needs while at school, particularly during their final year when there is some apparent reluctance to supply equipment that may only be needed for a short time.
  • We agreed to pursue the idea of a concession card, similar to Australia and some other countries, which would allow a blind or vision impaired person to be accompanied, free of charge, at Arts, Cultural and Sporting events so as to increase accessibility and maximise the experience for the blind or vision impaired person.
  • We are calling for television commercials to include more verbal content so that blind and vision impaired viewers are informed of all that is visual, including but not limited to store names, products and contact details.
  • We noted that even though we have had human rights laws and various other non-discrimination laws in this country for more than twenty years, New Zealand’s culture still seems to be resistant to upholding these rights. We want the Human Rights Commission, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the Office for Disability Issues, to be more forthright in advocating for a culture in New Zealand in which our rights as equal citizens are upheld.
  • Further to this, we want the Office of Disability Issues to commence discussions with disability stakeholders on whether there is a need for dedicated disability legislation to fully ensure our rights are enshrined in law and gain demonstrable acceptance by society.
  • We are asking for more high quality audio description services on all the main television channels and for appropriate standards to be set for audio description.
  • We are expressing serious concern that blind students are at risk of not reaching their full potential in examinations when they are not provided with examination material in the right formats. We noted for example that the Qualifications Authority is reluctant to provide exam papers in proper large print, choosing only to photo-enlarge these papers, which for people who truly need large print is unsatisfactory. We are calling for the Ministry of Education to address this as a matter of urgency.
  • We are asking Blind Citizens NZ to develop a new brief to focus on all aspects of education such as issues of technological change, equipment, accessible formats, and attitudinal barriers, because blind students have the right to achieve at the same level as their sighted peers. In particular this arose out of a concern that many schools nowadays are developing technology-based online learning environments, and often these environments do not conform to well established accessibility guidelines.
  • We congratulated Southland Branch for showing initiative in seeking funding for and then developing an excellent DVD that will help train airport ground staff, bus and taxi drivers in their region.
  • We are calling on the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind Incorporated to act decisively, before next year’s Board elections, to address various concerns regarding accountability of individual directors, how candidates seeking election can be better evaluated, and seeking more openness and transparency of all meetings of the Foundation’s board of directors. This is obviously very timely given the current election. But really this has arisen out of a growing concern that governing members are becoming more and more disinterested in governance and the voting process. But it’s not just that we know so little about each candidate, but also once people get onto the Board we know almost nothing about their attitudes and how they perform as directors. Much of what the Board does is either done in committee where we can’t see it at all, or in subcommittees which we can’t observe. The Foundation has said they are also concerned about the apathy of members, but in our view the first steps to overcoming that really rest with the Foundation’s Board which must really look at its own behaviour as the Board of a social organisation which they like to tell us is member led. So when we convey this to the Foundation, we will of course be asking for the chance to discuss possible strategies with them.

During the Conference dinner on Saturday evening, I had the pleasure of presenting our Extra Touch Award to the Electoral Commission in recognition of their enthusiastic approach to implementing Telephone Dictation Voting for the first time in New Zealand. This award is made from time to time to an organisation or individual that, as part of the process of catering to the general public, makes an outstanding contribution towards improvement in access or service to blind and vision impaired people. We were clear that we believe Government has an obligation to ensure blind and vision impaired people can cast a fully informed, independent and confidential vote in national and local elections. This was not the point of the award. Rather, it was to recognise the enthusiasm showed by the staff of the Electoral Commission in developing the service from scratch, ahead of our expectations, and for willingly taking into account the feedback from the people who tested the service.

I also had the pleasure of presenting the John McDonald trophy to our Nelson branch. This trophy is awarded to the branch that has the highest number of members when measured against the number of blind and vision impaired people in the branch’s area. Well done Nelson.

And this year we were able to again run our leadership seminar in conjunction with Conference. The focus this year was on encouraging our members to consider coming onto our Board or to a local branch committee. People who attended the leadership seminar were not afraid to speak out at Conference itself so that was a good sign. We hope these people will soon be ready to contribute more at a national or local level.

Lastly Conference had the privilege of hearing from two young people who were attending for the first time. They gave us an insight into how to communicate with young people and what issues mattered to them. It’s important to listen to young people as they are the future and we need to encourage their participation.