Making Accessibility Happen
All Photos by Nando Azevedo
“How do we get change? I think the way to do it is through the power of story. To persuade people that something really needs to change, we need to tell our stories.” - Deborah Russell, Labour MP.
As people took their seats, a quiet hum of anticipation broke through. There was chatter and laughter, nerves, and excitement. Fluro lights lit up people from a diverse range of cultures, ages, and backgrounds. Each person carried their own unique story of living with a disability. Each came ready to use their story as a catalyst for change.
The forum was organised as part of the Access Matters campaign, aiming to put accessibility law at the heart of a more inclusive Aotearoa. The event was designed to bring supporters together around a common vision. A vision which, through a storytelling workshop, explored what an accessible Aotearoa looks like, what the access barriers are, and how we can make accessibility happen.
From individual stories to systemic barriers
During the workshop, reflections on being unable to participate in daily life permeated discussions. I spoke to Aine Kelly-Costello - a musician, speaker of French and Spanish, and the Access Matters community organiser who coordinated the event. Aine is also blind.
She shared with me the frustration of not being able to do something as simple as accepting a job offer without sighted assistance. “The forms were not accessible with the screen reading software, which includes synthesised speech, something I need to use to read those forms.” She explained.
After asking the organisation if they could make the forms accessible, they told her that wasn’t possible because those were government-issued forms. Aine explained her experience is not unique: "There are a lot of barriers in the employment process - from filling out applications right through to actually working. We want all citizens to have equal opportunities to be able to find work and contribute to their workplaces.”
Greater accessibility means that people like Aine can find employment and participate in the workplace more easily. New Zealand has 228,000 disabled people of working age who are not employed. Seventy-four percent of them want to work, so employers who do not make their workplaces accessible miss out on talented, skilled and competent workers.
“Ultimately it’s about removing the barriers that disable us so we can reach our full potential as citizens who want to actively contribute to society”, stressed Aine. In this way, a society where it’s members are able to participate in all areas of life benefits not only disabled people themselves, but all of us.
Juliana Carvalho is in a wheelchair and used to enjoy taking the ferry to work. She reflected on the day she was called and told she could no longer catch the ferry to work, because it wasn’t fully accessible for wheelchairs. “I felt mad. I can’t change my impairment, but the organisation can change the ferries and make them more accessible.”
Like Aine, Juliana explained this was a systemic issue, “I’m not the only person in a wheelchair who wants to take the ferry. There’s heaps of other people that should be able to use public transport.” For Juliana, legislation would make a difference. “In Brazil we have legislation. We have a disability act, so when something goes wrong you are supported by the law. Here in New Zealand it’s not yet the case, but it should be.” Placing minimum standards for accessibility at the heart of organisations, like those that provide transport, would shift the responsibility from individuals like Juliana to the environments and organisations we actively create and design.
Aine and Juliana shared just two situations where accessibility barriers exist. Though these experiences are personal, they are not unique. One in four New Zealanders live with a disability and face all sorts of access barriers on a daily basis. The scale of the problem was unpacked throughout the workshop. Common barriers to communication, employment, education and transport came up time and again in the stories shared.
As the access barriers were exposed, so too was the group vision of what an accessible New Zealand could look like. The consensus was strong: every kiwi should be able to participate in the world around them. Getting a job, an education, moving about freely, or visiting public spaces can and should be things we can all enjoy.
The role of legislation
For the Access Matters campaign, systemic problems call for systemic solutions, and accessibility legislation is at the heart of a more inclusive Aotearoa. Dianne Rogers is Policy Manager at the Blind Foundation and was one of the keynote speakers on the day. She shared that while there are a lot of programmes, plans and actions being taken in the disability sector, there’s nothing in New Zealand that sets a clear standard. A law, she explained, would set expectations, standards, and timeframes, and would guide organisations toward positive change.
“We don’t want new barriers being put up and we need to slowly pull existing barriers down. We don’t want to be the only watch dogs for the accessibility system in New Zealand anymore. We want organisations to understand what they have to do and give them time and mandate to do it.”
While laws are often viewed as independent or separate from other modes of change, Dianne stressed that legislation has a wider impact than just enforcing standards. “There are laws like this in other areas of the world. They aren’t perfect. But by setting a standard, they change attitudes. They change culture.”
In her story about the job offer, Aine explained the way law change is often viewed as a separate piece of paper in the background. When it’s something we need to embody if we are serious about making New Zealand accessible. “Prioritising accessibility in our laws means acting on what those laws mean. So not just doing them because they are a thing on paper that you have to comply with, rather because actually it’s really important that we are giving our citizens equal opportunities to be able to find work and contribute to their workplaces.”
For keynote speaker and Labour MP Deborah Russell, accessibility legislation was about freedom. Not only freedom ‘from’ barriers, but freedom ‘to’ lead a productive and positive life. As a feminist, she learned early on that disability intersects and pervades all areas of life. “I learned there was no point in having a feminist gathering, if people couldn’t get in the door just because they had a disability”, she shared.
New Zealand prides itself on being the first country to give women the vote. Through the Suffrage Movement we created a society where citizens could participate in our democracy, regardless of whether they were men or women.
Yet people with disabilities still struggle to access basic freedoms. Deborah explained, “you are not free to participate in our society if you don’t have income...you are not free to participate in our society if you don’t have a secure home...you are not free to participate in our society if you can’t move about your city or your town.”
Deborah highlighted that accessibility legislation marks a move away from freedom ‘from’ barriers and individual battles. Towards freedom ‘to’ participate in society. For everyone and especially for disabled people. It is, like New Zealand's suffrage movement, our chance to create an inclusive society where all citizens are active participants.
Where to from here?
The Access Matters Gathering marked the second phase of the campaign for accessibility legislation. In February The Access Alliance presented a petition to Minister for Disability Issues Carmel Sepuloni with over 3000 signatures from citizens wanting an accessibility act at the heart of a more inclusive Aotearoa. Minister Sepuloni stopped short of committing, at that point.
In June the Access Alliance will meet with Minister Sepuloni again, this time with an even stronger case to make accessibility legislation a reality, and to ensure disabled Kiwis have the same opportunities and choices as everyone else.
The Access Matters storytelling workshop was a day of transformation. As people shared their individual stories, a collective voice and call to action emerged. It was clear people were ready to see their vision of an accessible Aotearoa become a reality. That they knew it was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.
The Access Matters campaign is led by the Access Alliance, a group of twelve disability organisations. If you would like to support the Access Matters Campaign please visit www.accessalliance.org.nz - here you can read more stories about why kiwis support an accessibility act, and share your own story too.
Photos by Nando Azevedo. Visit: http://www.nandoazevedo.com/
If you would like more information about the Impact Narrative storytelling workshop run by Jason Boberg at Activate films, visit: About Us — Activate.Film