6 Sep 2017

'You have to choose between food and going to the doctor'

5:23 pm on 6 September 2017

Disabled New Zealanders who have felt ignored this election campaign grilled politicians yesterday about their policies for disabled people.

Politicians at the debate over NZers with disabilities (from left) New Zealand First's Talani Meikle, National's Nicola Willis, Labour's Grant Robertson, and The Green Party's Mojo Mathers.

Politicians at the debate over New Zealanders with disabilities. From left: New Zealand First's Talani Meikle, National's Nicola Willis, Labour's Grant Robertson, and the Green Party's Mojo Mathers. Photo: RNZ / Jacob McSweeny

One in four New Zealanders has a disability, according to IHC, and yesterday four politicians - National's Nicola Willis, Labour's Grant Robertson, the Green Party's Mojo Mathers and New Zealand First's Talani Meikle - fronted up to discuss their policies.

People attending the debate were very clear about the challenges they faced, such as finding good housing.

The politicians were told disabled people were more likely to live in cold, damp houses; were more likely to live on lower incomes; and were frequently experienced discrimination in the rental housing market, where there was also a shortage of accessible, appropriate and safe houses.

Ms Meikle said that housing was a huge cost for people on a supported living allowance and that no one should have to choose between paying their rent and going to the doctor.

"No one should have to make that decision, we're a better country than that."

Instead, Ms Meikle said NZ First would look at the Housing New Zealand component of that "and hope to ease that burden".

Ms Willis, National's candidate for Wellington Central, said her party was already addressing some of the concerns about suitable housing.

"In the Housing New Zealand property there are 3682 properties that have been modified to cater to specific tenant needs. That is a very important part of what Housing New Zealand does. And National is committed to making sure that our social housing stock responds to the needs of its tenants."

National apologises for comments

But Ms Willis also found herself defending the actions of some of her colleagues - including Disability Issues Minister Nicky Wagner, who was criticised in June for tweeting that she would rather be out on the harbour when she was in a disability meeting.

"It really upset her because it detracted from the hard work that she's done in this area and the importance she places on it," Ms Willis said.

Ms Willis also apologised for comments made by Wairarapa MP, Alastair Scott, who justified people with disabilities losing their benefits when they moved in with their partners by saying: "love has consequences".

Ms Mathers said the need for state support did not stop when people found partners.

That call was echoed by Mr Robertson.

"We need the benefit system to be able to be applied practically and well to support people to live good lives."

Struggle to get by

Both Labour and the Greens said there needed to be greater financial support for people with disabilities.

But Mr Robertson, the MP for Wellington Central, also said some people were struggling to get the services they were already entitled to.

Ms Mathers agreed that there needed to be a change in the way Work and Income operated.

"Stop this endless requirement to prove that you are still have a disability, to prove that you really need such and such a benefit or entitlement."

The Greens, Labour and NZ First all committed to holding an inquiry into the historical abuse of disabled people in state care - and also to a state apology.

"If we don't learn from our history we are destined to repeat it," Mr Robertson said.

However, Ms Willis said National had done "a lot of work with the individuals involved in those cases, and in many cases had issued individual apologies and done individual work with them".

Ms Mathers said there needed to be a comprehensive acknowledgment and apology from the state, "so that we can move on".

She said many people were too traumatised by their experience to engage with the Crown, but that they deserved an apology as well.

Ms Meikle said disability issues would not be taken seriously by the government as long as the portfolio continued to be a position outside Cabinet.

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