Category Archives: Disability Issues

New Zealand Sign Language: A cultural treasure

A rather late very happy New Year to all readers of Low Visionary.  May 2014 bring real progress on disability rights and accessibility all over the world.

Prompted by recent spirited discussion about the decline of New Zealand Sign Language,  and the equally spirited continuing debate about cochlear implants, here is my perspective on the value of New Zealand Sign Language in the New Zealand context.

I should say at the outset that I am not Deaf. Nor can I communicate in New Zealand Sign Language. The visual, spatial qualities inherent to it are beyond my visual capacity. I do know how to work with a Sign Language interpreter though. Since meeting the New Zealand Deaf community many years ago I have been fascinated by their language and history, as well as getting to know some great people.

Over those years I have learned a great deal, joined in with the celebrations of Deaf community victories, and supported their campaigns for access. The Deaf community are articulate, confident, outward looking, and one of the most creative communities around.

It is sad that, although New Zealand Sign Language is one of our official languages, it does not seem to be recognised widely as a national treasure. This was brought into sharp focus for me recently when thinking about Sign Language while working on an arts accessibility project.

Sign Languages should be treasured as precious cultural artefacts in their own right. In some settings they are. In 1993 I watched a riveting and inclusive one woman theatre performance in American Sign Language at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC. Closer to home in 1996, along with other international conference attendees in Auckland, I watched, spellbound, a skilled interpreter yodel, (in NZ Sign Language) along with the Topp Twins. She was as much a star as they were. I have attended other Signed performances, watched Sign singers, lots of Sign Language interpreted meetings and gatherings and enjoyed Deaf humour.

Yet more than twenty years after my first Deaf cultural encounter, and long after New Zealand Sign Language has become an official language, when I visit the web site of Te Papa Tongarewa,  our national cultural storehouse I find no trace of New Zealand Sign Language. There is lots of Maori content, probably not enough, and information in seven other languages besides English and Maori. Is it because being Deaf is associated with deficit rather than with language and culture? Is providing Sign Language seen as a cost which will add little value, rather than as a celebration of the linguistic and cultural heritage of a unique New Zealand community? How about providing information accessibly to New Zealand citizens who are entitled to it?

Kudos to the National Library which has recognised the importance of New Zealand Sign Language and decided that all exhibitions will be introduced in all our national languages. Kudos also to the theatres and arts organisations that have recognised and included Deaf language and culture in their work.  Others need to follow these examples. They could start by joining the activities during Sign Language Week celebrated in May each year.

The New Zealand National Anthem in New Zealand Sign Language, English and Maori. The video is an example of our three national languages, all of which are part of our history and culture.

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Three disability Christmas wishes

In looking back over 2013 it seems to have gone very fast, and been eventful and full on. Aside from some changes in my personal life there have been other interesting developments. I have continued with some work themes from previous years and become involved in some new areas of work. Working in arts access has been particularly interesting and fun.

As the years pass I am becoming impatient with the pace of change in the disability community. I think there is too much apathy, some self-satisfaction as well as lots of frustration. I worry that we could even be going backwards.

As it is the Christmas season, with all that means, secular and religious, and in accordance with the rules of things magical I have decided to make three Christmas wishes. In the hope they might come true – OK I am a born optimist – I will try and be realistic in my wishes for change. While I always hope for world peace, sadly it doesn’t look likely in the near future.

At the risk of being corny here are my three Christmas wishes.

  1. I wish that that disabled people’s organisations and disability service providers would pay serious attention to making their web sites and electronic information really accessible to the whole community of disabled people.
  2. I wish that disabled people’s organisations would be adequately resourced to enable them to be strong and independent, to develop their and their members’ capacity to represent our voices in a forceful and professional manner
  3. I wish that we as disabled people would be more kind and open towards each other, prepared to understand, support and celebrate the things about us that are different, while grasping and working together in strength and unity on those many big issues that unite us. Together we can do it all!

The magic may need some help from us. I will be foregoing New Year’s resolutions, (which I never keep, apart from the one I made some years ago never to make any more) in favour of these wishes. I hope others will help me make them come true.

But while we have a well-earned break I wish all readers, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, whether in sun or snow, a cheerful, peaceful, safe and restful holiday season, and a very happy New Year. Merry Christmas!

A spikey red pohutukawa blossom with green leaves. (The NZ Christmas tree.)

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People First New Zealand Celebrates tenth anniversary

Sometime the community of disabled people is so busy fighting battles that we forget the gains we have made, and don’t give ourselves the cbanner-10-yrredit or the time to celebrate. Happily a recent celebration was an exception. We celebrated the tenth birthday of People First New Zealand as an independent organisation.

As I lislogo-PF2v2tened to the learning disabled members, advocates and officers of People First speaking, and generally running things, I was taken back to my childhood, when people with learning disabilities were mocked, not seen as “real people” and often “put away” in the depersonalised language of the day, as if they were objects you could literally put away somewhere and forget about. And people did. Contemporaries of mine have sometimes discovered they had siblings of whose existence they were totally unaware.

But out of all this came a movement, led by learning disabled people themselves. They demanded recognition and rights, from the grassroots right up to the United Nations. When I was first involved in the disability rights movement, to my shame, people with learning disabilities were not included, sometimes actively excluded. Now the last of the big institutions are closed, and learning disabled people are taking their rightful place at the disabled people’s rights table.

A selection of People First’s achievements over ten years, in no particular order;

  • Changing language from “intellectual disability” to “learning disability”
  • Working on the successful repeal of the discriminatory Disabled Persons Employment Promotion Act
  • Lobbying and marching for closing the big institutions, Kimberley was the last to go.
  • Members addressed international conferences and gave some stunning presentations at home.
  • Robert Martin was the first person with a learning disability to address the United Nations during negotiations for the Disability Rights Convention, (CRPD). I was there. It was a great, very moving speech.
  • A DVD about voting was made with the Electoral Commission
  • Employment advocates were trained. The award-winning world first Easy Read Individual Employment Agreement, satisfying all legal requirements, was produced.
  • People First is an important member of the CRPD monitoring mechanism, the Convention Coalition Monitoring Group, with other disabled people’s organisations, (DPOs)

There is still much to be done, but together we can do it all. The disability community joined People First to celebrate at Parliament, and to launch the new logo, web site and Facebook page. Later there was a full-on party where again people with learning disabilities were in charge, including the music.

Thanks People First for including us all in the celebrations. May the next ten years be even better!

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Making New Zealand Accessible. Disabled women claim their place

This post is edited notes from a panel presentation in conjunction with the Tirohia mai exhibition at the National Library September 28th 2013. The exhibition marks 120 years of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.

What does accessibility, in the broadest sense mean to me as a disabled woman? What does it mean to the wider community of disabled women? How can it be improved for all disabled women? What would make the greatest difference?

This exhibition is very important as it begins to give us access to some of our disability herstory 120 years after women in NZ were able to vote. Without the vision of curator Rosslyn Noonan we wouldn’t be there at all so a big thank you to her. The experience of contributing to the exhibition has been exciting, frustrating and moving in equal measure.

Thinking about our history, from nineteenth and early twentieth century institutions where if you were blind you had to ask for permission to marry. Women were locked away for life for behaviour seen as aberrant, or because they were diagnosed as being “congenital idiots”.

Technology and other changes both help and hinder – blind telephonists, mostly women, lost their jobs with technological change and changes to the public service in the late 1980’s. Some never worked again. We have been deinstitutionalised. The “bins” have been emptied. New Zealand Sign Language is a national language. We have all kinds of cool equipment, and our first openly disabled woman MP.  But how much has really changed?

We are still struggling to get good personal care and support, and we are still being abused.

Some disabled women are not “allowed” to mother their children. Disabled girls still struggle to get a good education. Many disabled women live their whole lives in poverty as part of the growing inequality in New Zealand, part of the growing “precariat,” particularly as we age.

There are huge unresolved issues relating to body image, sexuality and the conventions around how a woman looks or should look. We are poorer, less employed, and more prone to intimate partner violence than non-disabled men. We have less access to sexual and reproductive health than non-disabled women, and some particular groups of disabled women have poorer general health than just about anyone else.

We are way behind other developed, and even some developing countries with the lack of attention and systemic indifference given to our concerns as disabled women.

So, for me access is about pretty much everything.

The Oxford Dictionary definition, (paraphrased) describes access as “the right or opportunity to benefit from something,” approach or see someone, to obtain or retrieve, to approach or enter a place.

Accessibility for me means I want access to the same as other women no less, as well as the supports I might need as a disabled women.

Among other things, accessibility means access to information, and physical access. It means being able to read the horrible signage on the Wellington buses. Reading the prices in the Supermarket is another. Health-related info is pretty important. It is an act of revenge when I go for a mammogram to ask about the availability of information in alternative formats? After all why shouldn’t they feel as uncomfortable as I do?

For all disabled women it means access to the support we need as women to enable us to live good, full lives whatever that might mean to us. We need access to the systems and structures that govern our lives, whether it is access to Sign Language in the workplace, or easily accessible information about candidates in the upcoming Local Government elections, a truly accessible voting process and access to standing for public office. I know of one disabled woman standing for a District Health Board. I hope there are others.

It means access to our children and the support we need to mother them and to deal with intimate relationships when they go wrong or where there is violence.

Importantly we also need access to initiatives for and progress made by all women. At present many of us are shut out.

We need access to the policy agenda that sees our interests and rights as women ignored and neglected.

We need access to information and to debates that affect us as disabled women as well as to the environment where these debates take place.

We need access to the women’s research agenda and to the research process itself. Even when research is conducted on our issues, it is frequently conducted from a non-disabled standpoint. It will therefore lack real validity.

We need more access to our own history.

We need access to the tools and resources that can challenge the systemic disadvantage and discrimination we as disabled women encounter on an everyday basis.

We need access to each other, and the skills and gifts and strengths we bring in all our rich diversity and intersectionality.

We need access to structures, tools and resources that will enable us to work on our own issues and choices. Together we can do it all.

We have the Disability Rights Convention, CRPD. with its twin track approach, including all of us and we have the Women’s Convention, CEDAW.

That is all very well. But what will make the greatest difference right now.  Returning to the Tirohia mai exhibition. It has been very difficult to find information about our herstory. I was shocked that we could not even find a good quality photo of Dame Anne Ballin. We have discovered how woefully lacking we are in good quality, recent information about disabled women. It is outrageous that Statistics New Zealand has not produced any comparative disability gender analysis since 1996. This is shameful.

Having good, accessible comparative readily available data is critical for us to make real change. We need a comparative gender report from the current and all future surveys.

Working together on a disabled women’s agenda would also help. Disabled People’s Organisations are full of women. Many of us are leaders there, so how come we are not working on women’s issues. Do we not see them as important?

I was sad that the women’s caucus in the NEC of DPA has been abolished, and that VIEW has lost its founding fervour for change.

Nothing will be handed to us. While we will find allies in different places we have to drive the change ourselves, that is, if we really want it. As disabled women we have to keep saying “Nothing about us without us! and work for change together.

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Filed under Disability Issues, Disability Rights, Inclusion, Information Accessibility, Web Accessibility, Women