On the International Day of Disabled Persons 2018 the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) celebrates the diverse disabled population of these islands and reaffirms its commitment to opposing all forms of discrimination against the community.
Tackling stigma, ignorance and prejudice against the disabled is an urgent and much-needed task because, despite some progress over recent decades, members of the disabled community continue to experience unacceptable restrictions in their lives, beginning at an early age.
Social workers look beyond medical models to recognise external influences, including social attitudes and unjust limitations on access to opportunity, that can restrict the wellbeing of service users- often far more than the condition they experience.
As ANZASW member Grant McLellan told us, “we need to increasingly use the social model of disability which [recognises that] disabled people are often disabled by their environment.”
“One of the fundamental things that can get in the way is having a low expectation of disabled people and how that impacts on education and employment,” he said.
“In our school environment it does concern me that our young people with, for example, learning disabilities really struggle to get equipment like speech recognition software that can actually make a real difference. That’s about attitude, that’s not about that person’s condition,” he continued.
A social worker active in the disability sector, working with families / whanau and children told ANZASW that a key part of her work involves enhancing inclusivity and connectedness in schools.
“Education is important, but supporting the social side, overcoming communication barriers and a sense of identity and individuality, should not be neglected,” she said. “For example, in some cases disabled children are taught how to communicate with adults but not given the same support in interacting with other children, which is so important- and we try to encourage that… [by] modelling positive behaviour and communications,” she added.
Encouraging engagement of this kind is also valuable from a child protection perspective, she further noted. “In order to tackle abuse and neglect we encourage disabled children to communicate about things that other people may do they may or may not realise are wrong. From our perspective and those of their carers, it’s about noticing small things, what the signs are., not being afraid to ask the tough questions.”
Beyond the childhood experiences of disabled children / tamariki, the rate of families / whanau living in poverty is a major factor in reproducing arbitrary disadvantage, meaning that “outcomes for disabled people are still some of the worst for any minority,” McLellan told the Association.
“Disabled people are twice as likely to leave school without a qualification, when compared to the general population. And when you look at statistics our rate of employment is, I think 47% behind the general population; if you look at income, the recent labour force surveys have shown that disabled people on average earn about half of the what the general population earns,” he observed.
The Association notes that, while government efforts to improve outcomes and employment access for the community, such as Disability support system transformation, Maha in Mana and Mana Whaikaha in MidCentral DHB, are to be welcomed, the country has a long way to go to securing equity for disabled persons.
We believe that this struggle belongs to all of us, not only the politicians; employers in particular have an important role to play in recognising the under-utilised skills and talent that the disabled community has to offer.
As McLellan notes, it is in the interest of society as a whole that disabled persons are given greater access to economic opportunity. “We had some research done a few years back by a company [that performed] a cost-benefit analysis which looked at what would be the impact if disabled people had the same rate of employment as the general population. What that showed was, rather than being a cost to society there would be a 1.1 billion dollar annual benefit,” he said.
While the Association believes that greater access to opportunity is an essential, more should also be done to support disabled persons during periods of unemployment; research shows the need for higher disability allowances to combat child poverty, a state of affairs that compounds other issues limiting the prospects of disabled children / tamariki, with life-long consequences.
The disabled community represents a huge cross-section of society. As the World Health Organisation (WHO) notes their “disability” is defined as much by the social relations they experience as the health of their body or mind, describing it as “a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”
We would like to see this diversity better reflected in media coverage, which plays a role in maintaining discriminatory or unfair attitudes and thus in perpetuating social exclusion. People living with disability deserve better than cheap stereotypes that either disempower or sentimentalise them. The Disabled community should instead be represented with nuance and accuracy.
The Association also looks forward to greater representation of persons with disability in the national conversation and in positions of influence.
Worldwide it is estimated that around half a billion people live with a disability. Today we whakamihi their struggles for equality, recognition and freedom from social injustice. Kia Kaha!