Waitangi event access improved after 'terrible' experience last year

Advocates are celebrating after successfully negotiating for improved access to Waitangi Day events for disabled people.

Kim Robinson, chair of group Deaf Action which led the effort, says this year, for the first time, many disabled people's access needs were well catered for at the Waitangi Treaty grounds.

"Last year's experience with access to the venue events was terrible.

We were determined to see better access to our national day that all disabled people could participate in."

Mori Rapana, Cultural Manager at Waitangi Treaty Grounds and Waitangi Commemorations Coordinator, took to heart the accessibility feedback from last year.

"Our national day is all about inclusivity. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds certainly want to be a place of relevance to all New Zealanders, regardless of creed, colour, ethnicity, able-bodied or not."

Over three days of Waitangi events, from February 4 to 6, the Prime Minister and Governor General Powhiri and dawn service were NZ Sign Language-interpreted by trilingual interpreters.

Waitangi event access improved after 'terrible' experience last year
Photo credit: Supplied/Kim Robinson

This year, the grounds included a safe area for disabled people to view the proceedings on a multimedia screen, ensuring the interpreters were visible and avoiding crowd-crush risks.

The Prime Minister's breakfast was also moved from the inaccessible Wharewaka area to a level zone with wheelchair access.

The change meant that kuia such as Titewhai Harawira* and other wheelchair-users could fully participate with their whānau and everyone else, and Mr Robinson said Deaf Action is "very pleased"with this outcome.

A coordinated drop-off and mobility zone was additionally introduced, along with accessible portaloos designated for disabled people only.

Mr Rapana says the improvements set a precedent and will be "locked into the planning" for all Waitangi commemorations to come.

"The attention we paid to the disabled community wasn't out of sympathy, it was out of responsibility. It was our responsibility to make sure [Waitangi commemorations] were accessible to everybody."

It was a sea change from Mr Robinson's experience last year.

"I silently cried when I hobbled past Titewhai Harawira who had earlier escorted the PM onto the Marae sitting in the corner of the Waka shed with her whanau only to watch people massing towards the breakfast tables which were inaccessible for her wheelchair," he blogged a the time.

The Human Rights Commission mediated in the negotiations that resulted in the slew of positive developments.

Disability Commissioner Paula Tesoriero also met with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to work on improved access to national public holidays such as Waitangi Day and ANZAC day.

Mr Robinson says Deaf Action is happy with the outcome but the work isn't over yet.

"I want to see every venue celebrating Waitangi Day throughout New Zealand be accessible in which disabled people can fully participate in a national day with their whanau and friends," he wrote In a 2019 blog post celebrating the improvements.

"I seek to use this year for the formation of official partnerships between all parties involved via further campaigning to our Government to adopt accessible national days/public holidays."

Mr Rapana says this is just the beginning of a journey for the Waitangi commemorations.

"Anything we can possibly do which is realistic we'll certainly look forward to doing that next year, especially given it's the 180th.

"It's an opportunity for Waitangi to lead the way in how we manaaki and how we look after our disabled communities a lot better, not only in Northland."

He posed a bold vision.

"Certainly in the future we can be a leader for all of New Zealand in terms of setting the example, the precedent, with guidance from good people like Kim [Robinson]."

Mr Rapana wants to give others the wake-up call he openly admits he and the other Waitangi commemoration organisers needed about accessibility.

"We want to be able to say: 'hey businesses, hey tourism operators, are you doing enough to make your organisation, your company, your venture accessible to disabled people'?"

Ultimately, that's because it was supposed to be this way in New Zealand from the start.

"Waitangi the place, Waitangi the narrative, the story is all about inclusivity," Mr Rapana said.

"If we're going to be true to the articles in the treaty, we need to ensure we are inclusive of everyone in our country."