27 Mar 2020

Covid-19: Disability advocates on leaving no one behind

5:55 pm on 27 March 2020

By Áine Kelly-Costello*

As quick access to up-to-date information becomes necessary for keeping on top of Covid-19 updates, disability advocates say it's time to double down on providing disabled Kiwis the tools they need to ask for help.

No caption

Photo: RNZ

Advocacy group Deaf Action is calling for deaf people to have instant, round-the-clock access to New Zealand Sign Language interpreters in case of a medical emergency.

The alternative scenario is one that chairperson Kim Robinson had direct experience of in 2016 when he was forced to wait 64 hours for an interpreter when suffering a life-threatening case of cellulitis.

"If you're really ill, trying to read or type is the last thing your brain wants to do," he said, referring to the disorienting experience of needing to communicate with medics without access to his preferred language.

"Sometimes it's impossible. Reading and morphine for me don't mix. We need access to communication 24/7."

Robinson said the Ministry of Health was, after a slow start, now doing better at providing NZSL information about Covid-19 on its website, but that it could be making use of additional providers of sign language translation to keep pace with the changes.

Other deaf and hard of hearing people are calling for a texting service to be introduced for the 1177 Healthline number, should they feel unwell.

Lorraine McQuigg, who is deaf and works as a grants administrator for Auckland Deaf Society, said texting would be an easy, reliable and efficient solution.

McQuigg, who mainly uses captions to access TV or video broadcasts, acknowledged the efforts of all those working to get information out to the deaf community.

"Both the captioning of the unfolding Covid-19 situation and the live NZSL interpreting has been outstanding… Obviously a lot of access work has been done."

However, she noted that New Zealand's captioning capacity for live broadcasts was "generally poor".

By the time Sunday's live episode of Newshub Nation about Covid-19 was repeated on Monday evening with captions, much of the information was already out of date, she said.

For blind people and those with low vision, advocacy group Blind Citizens says a major challenge is reaching a large swathe of older people who do not use email or the internet.

The organisation, which is a representative body for blind people across the country, is working with the Ministry of Health to disseminate information both electronically and over the phone.

But in an email to those members who were online, National President Jonathan Godfrey urged them to put their hands up for picking up a phone and checking in with others in their local branch.

"I can't help everyone I know needs helping," the email said. "We will have people in our community who cannot shop online; we will have people who cannot read the latest official and reputable information sources, and we will have people who are not good at asking for help.

"I now ask you to reach out to at least three people outside your household each day," Godfrey's email continued. "You will need to reach out to someone different on many days until we have increased confidence that every one of us is as safe as possible. Asking for help is not a crime; having no one to ask is."

A Ministry of Health spokesperson acknowledged the heightened uncertainty disabled people, and all of New Zealand, is currently facing.

"The Ministry is actively working with the disability sector, so we have a joined-up approach to ensure disabled people are looked after and kept safe over the coming months," the spokesperson said.

"We are working extremely hard to make sure we get the information to disabled people, their families and providers in accessible formats as fast as possible."

The accessible formats include Easy Read for people with learning disabilities, New Zealand Sign Language, and audio.

*Áine Kelly-Costello is a freelance reporter from Aotearoa, currently studying investigative journalism in Sweden.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs