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Listen to us

There has been greater awareness of disabled people’s issues of late.
Woman in a wheelchair at work
Posted June 5, 2012

There has been greater awareness of disabled people’s issues of late. Disabled people are more visible in the community. Few will forget that sign language interpreters were a (thankfully) evident part of public communication during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake response.

Disabled sportspeople (think of swimmer Sophie Pascoe) regularly win swags of medals. Disabled people are seen around the shops and supermarkets, at schools, in workplaces and in churches.

But we disabled people participate in a community that is not designed to include us. Making a World of Difference: Whakanui Oranga, the NZ Disability Strategy (2001), says barriers are created when our society is built in a way that assumes we can all move quickly across the road, see signs, hear announcements and have stable moods and perceptions.

A number of disabled children can’t go to their local school and learn because the school refuses to enrol them. Not all of us can just hop on any bus—and buses that take everyone aren’t everywhere. Accessible taxis are a muchmore costly option, particularly if you need to use them often.

Barriers are not just in the concrete ‘things’ like ramps into buildings, or visual and loudspeaker announcements about trains; they are just as much about the attitudes behind the policies—attitudes that form the policies. Other people think they know what’s best for us, but don’t really ask us or take what we tell them seriously.

And so laws get put into place, policies get decided or practices happen to us. A blind friend of mine talks about Work and Income sending her printed letters she can’t see by herself. Why shouldn’t she be able to find out what the letter says independently, then choose who she shares it with? Another friend, with a learning disability, can see letters but can’t make head or tail of them because they are written unclearly, with lots of bureaucratic language.

Disabled people find all sorts of barriers every day. For us, every day it’s that bit more difficult to participate in the community on the same basis as everyone else. It can be tiring, and it isn’t nice to feel as though you’re invisible—although it does wonders for the creative problem-solving mind. 

Over time, disabled people came to realise that we have a lot of expertise in being disabled, and what it takes to be included. We realised, too, that it’s better to bring this expertise together from a wide range of disabled people.

I know what works for my hearing impairment, but I recognise that’s not exactly the same for my hearing-impaired mates Dave or Hannah. When we put our experiences together to sort out what works for us, we can band together to advocate from a collective basis.

We also need to realise that other disabled people have different needs, which must be met if they are to participate on a fair basis. So, again, it’s important to listen seriously to a whole lot of disabled people and then advocate for an approach to inclusion that includes all of us. There’s something limited about an approach where communities just focus on what meets an individual’s needs for participation.

Disabled people have been doing their best to build an ‘internal’ community that’s more inclusive. That is a good basis for us to then take this message to society as a whole. What that means for society as a whole, is to listen to us—and take what we say seriously.

By Wendi Wicks (abridged from War Cry, 2 June 2012, p3)


Wendi Wicks is a national policy researcher for Disabled Persons Assembly New Zealand Inc. (DPANZ), a national cross-impairment organisation led by disabled people—