Engaging with disabled people 4

I thought I had finished this series but recent events prompted this additional post.

Since 1987 I have spent a great deal of time consulting and engaging with disabled people. It started with the Royal Commission on Social Policy in 1987 and continued with setting up Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO) networks in the public service, through Non- Governmental Organisations processes and government committees and working parties. In 2001 we launched the NZ Disability Strategy after a huge national round of consultation. Then it was the Human Rights Commission Inquiry into Accessible Land Transport, The Human Rights Action Plan, and all the processes around the development of the Convention on the rights of persons with Disabilities, (CRPD) and so on. I have taken part in both sides of the process, as a professional within the consulting organisation, and among those disabled people and disabled people’s organisations being consulted.

So I was a tad taken aback the other day when a well-meaning public servant seemed to be going over well-trodden ground by politely asking a gathering of the disability community – How do you want us to engage with you? It was not so much the question itself as what seemed to be the assumed newness of the exercise.

The response from some was fairly predictable. A deep sigh, a list of preparatory reading, a quick lesson in recent history and a brisk request that the process simply be handed over to disabled people along with a reminder of “Nothing about us without us”.

But the fault is not with the individual public servant, who is usually well meaning and wanting to be respectful in the face of an audience which can be prickly at best and downright curmudgeonly at worst. Public servants, like the rest of us, often have to work with tight time frames and budgets. The problem is a lack of institutionalised knowledge, and inflexible and unresponsive bureaucratic processes in organisations meant to be for the public good. The wheel gets reinvented again, an unproductive and frustrating exercise for everyone.

So I thought I would develop a wee guide to help the hapless public servant new to disability to forge a respectful relationship with disabled people. Here are a few ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ to get you started.

  • Don’t expect to be spoon fed – People get a bit tired of the constant question and the expectation that disabled people will always be available and willing to volunteer to answer questions on your terms. They get a bit tired, grumpy and overloaded just as you do.
  • Do your homework. Check up on what is already known about engaging with disabled people in your organisation. What structures, networks and processes are already established? Ask your colleagues. Check out what your organisation has done in the past. What worked? What didn’t?
  • Do discover that many of the problems you want to know about have already been described to a high standard and at great length by disabled people. Read the latest information produced by disabled people. I personally recommend Disability in Aotearoa New Zealand – a report on the Human Rights of Disabled People in Aotearoa New Zealand, published in 2010 by the Convention Coalition, a coalition of disabled people’s organisations. But there are many more.
  • Do learn a bit about disabled people and their organisations, which may be quite different from their service providers. Most of them have web sites.
  • Don’t expect the Office for Disability issues (ODI) to be everything to everyone. There is lots of useful information about engaging with disabled people on their web site, but they were originally established to do policy work. Other organisations have responsibilities to disabled people too, and leaving everything to the ODI creates the ghetto disabled people are desperate to avoid.
  • Do read the CRPD and learn about your organisation’s responsibilities towards disabled people. One or two government organisations are beginning that journey.
  • Do use other information in the public arena, the census and disability survey information from Statistics New Zealand, the CRPD and the Disability Strategy. If you can’t find essential information in the public arena demand that it is collected. Read publications such as To have an Ordinary Life – I could write a whole reading list.
  • You might even find some useful information in my previous posts on this topic or at AccEase.

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