Efforts are underway to make Parliament more accessible for people who live with disability, and not before time.
There’s a long way to go but as a clear foot forward, a new position of Senior Accessibility Advisor at Parliament was established in October last year. The person appointed to the role is Stew Sexton.
His role is pan-disability focused, coming to grips with a diverse range including physical, neurological, visual or auditory disabilities, cognitive impairments, chronic pain and other conditions. The aim is to have a Parliament that's accessible for everybody that works in or visits Parliament, anyone who engages with its systems.
“We’ve gone from ground up, everything from toilets to kitchens, to meeting rooms, to quiet areas for people on the neuro-diversity spectrum,” said Sexton, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.
“Disability and accessibility comes down to the individual experience. And so one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. So it’s about talking to people, people that it does affect, and working through them.”
One parliament staffer with a physical disability, hearing impairment and neurological condition spoke to The House about the barriers they had to overcome each day at work, echoing common challenges related by others on precinct who live with disability.
“There are many parts of parliament that have zero disability access. Which means some people can’t get to meet some people in their offices. And for those that can (me) on bad days it makes just getting to work that much harder and more tiring," they said.
“For places that do have disability access, there are issues such as heavy doors that don’t automatically open and require assistance if you are in a wheelchair or have crutches. Or the options are twice as long and so those with needs have to use more energy getting to locations around parliament and that makes it harder.
“For those with hearing issues, the bells are barely audible, and in the house when everyone is being rowdy it is next to impossible to hear the speaker. The mics and speakers also mean you can basically hear them twice and it can get overwhelming very quickly."
Complaints of the sensory overload of chamber proceedings are not unusual, and one wonders how many Members of Parliament themselves may be hiding their struggles within this environment. There are only as few as two or three MPs that self identify as being disabled people in this current batch.
Sexton recently established a Staff Disability Network for people who work at Parliament, a forum in which people can get together and share experiences, talk about what’s working for them and what’s not.
“What I take from it is, anything that’s not working for them and trying to make it work. Recently we did a week celebrating neurodiversity, and I put out an email and from that email I had a number of staff members come to me and say ‘look I’m struggling in work’ or whatever. So it’s about putting measures in place for them to make work life easier.”
Attitudes to disability are one of the biggest daily barriers for the people living with the disability. It’s no different at Parliament and applies to anyone from staffers to MPs.
The ACT Party MP Toni Severin has been open to colleagues about how dyslexia affects her work and has ways of managing it. Unhelpful attitudes of people who confuse dyslexia with ‘being dumb’ are something people with her condition have to encounter from an early age.
Severin, who said she received good support in her work, is among the people at Parliament who have met with Stew Sexton and given feedback.
“It’s identifying those barriers and having people with different disabilities come in and say well this is a barrier, and this is a barrier. There’ll be different barriers for different types of disabilities. And if we don’t know and recognise it, then how can we fix these things? We’ve got to start having some form of barriers register, because they will be common occurrences in all government buildings probably, and that feeds down to public and private,” she explained.
“Some places we can do things and fix them, but some we probably won’t be able to. But if we work together to come to an understanding and arrangement, it would make things a lot better and that’s the first step we really need to do. Talk to our disability communities.”
The Senior Accessibility Advisor position was created following a recommendation by an Accessibility Reference Group which operated for 2 years until last month, providing advice to the Parliamentary Service and the Office of the Clerk
The group was instrumental in getting the organisations to improve access to services, conduct an accessibility audit of the public areas of the Parliamentary precinct, join the hidden disabilities sunflower programme, and offer additional training for staff around disability awareness and basic New Zealand Sign Language.
Chris Ford was chairman of the Group. He told The House that the establishment of the Senior Advisor’s role was a good step by Parliament, but expressed disappointment that the Advisory Reference Group's role has been discontinued, arguing that the Senior Advisor’s work would benefit from being underpinned by ongoing operation of the Group.
“I was recently talking to an MP I know well who said that parliament has a real ability to under-resource itself, because of the populist misconception that Parliament and Parliamentarians are living on a high,” Ford said.
In response came a joint statement from Clerk of the House David Wilson and Parliamentary Service Chief Executive Rafael Gonzalez-Montero, saying they’re “committed to recognising and mitigating concerns of representation from Disabled New Zealanders”, adding that while they appreciate that members of the Group were disappointed in the decision, they want to reassure them that they will continue to work closely with the disabled community, and welcome feedback and suggestions from all on how to improve accessibility to Parliament.
Meanwhile, Sexton was enthusiastic about the Staff Disability Network, and hoped it would grow as a safe space for people to share their experiences. Despite Parliament being an organisation steeped in tradition, he said he was encouraged by the openness of its various units to change.
“The exciting thing for me coming into this role at Parliament, has been that the attitude, that barrier, has been very minimal. I’m finding that it’s actually more of an educational thing. Ok, this is what we need to do, how do we do it,” he said.
It's expected that sooner or later a person who uses a wheelchair will be elected as a Member of Parliament. But in its current form the chamber is not well equipped to accommodate them. Sexton said helping Parliament become ready for that eventuality was part of what drives him on in this job.
As with the overall project of designing Parliament buildings, processes and procedures to be more accessible for everybody, it's "a work in progress".