Accessibility legislation a tokenistic toothless failure, disabled people say

The Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill was initially welcomed by disabled communities.
The Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill was initially welcomed by disabled communities. Photo credit: Newshub.

By Russell Palmer of RNZ

Disabled people have told MPs proposed accessibility legislation should set up standards backed with real enforcement, or be scrapped.

The Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill was initially welcomed by disabled communities, but when the details became public it seemed to just set up yet another advisory group - with no accountability from the minister.

Submitters to the Social Services and Community Committee on Monday said it practically would do nothing to improve accessibility for disabled people, and it could do more harm than good in its current form.

Carolyn Peat, who is blind, said there was nothing in the bill that would require anything of companies or organsiations, and it would fall short of laws already in place in other countries.

"I was excited when I first heard about the Accessibility for New Zealanders Bill ... then I actually read the document and I was gutted, because it didn't live up to my expectations. Is this bill going to make any difference in my daily life? No, it is not," Peat said.

"There is nothing to encourage or to give us a back-up when companies and organisations who provide goods and services to us do not wish to comply with accessibility upon request.

"Currently, we can go to the Human Rights Commission, but whatever resolution comes out of that is only for me as an individual. It's not compelling an organisation."

The legislation should not be thrown out but given teeth, Peat said.

"I'm on advisory committees, we can advise until we're blue in the face, but whether people in authority take notice of that advice or not is up to them. They don't have to."

Angela Desmarais told the committee basic things like official emergency communications - including during last week's cyclone - was often not available in accessible forms.

"Apart from the big barriers like transport and housing ... digital inequity's a massive barrier.

"Myself and others in the public have to do all this additional labour to describe screenshots, from even emergency departments, from government agencies, from MPs, from ministers, we have to describe their screenshots; we describe their images; transcribe their videos, all because government comms are not accessible and this bill doesn't change that."

Desmarais herself faces mobility challenges, and said the government enforced other standards like speed limits, drink-driving, taxes and some building standards - but not so much when it came to disabled people.

"So this bill in its current format shows the government doesn't really care about disabled people enough," she said.

"There have been multiple, multiple advisory groups over many years ... but without effect, because the advice doesn't have to be followed. This bill doesn't change that. So if government really thought that making things accessible was important you'd make rules to enforce it."

Áine Kelly-Costello said the bill was "systemically ableist to its core" and would probably do more harm than good.

"This bill is a token. The Labour government chose to take a long-standing ask of disability advocates and our lives, to take its language, pretend they were listening and twist it until it was unrecognisable and meaningless.

"No bill is needed to establish a ministerial advisory committee. Thing is, the government did not do that. It conveniently pretended to tick off the clause for accessibility legislation with enforceable standards by inventing the need for a committee.

"It lets the government score brownie points at the expense of us."

She urged the select committee to scrap the bill and start from the beginning, saying she did not believe it was enforceable.