1 Jul 2022

Ministry of Disabled People, Whaikaha, launches

10:22 am on 1 July 2022

The government has launched Whaikaha, the Ministry of Disabled People - the first ministry that will have a name in all three of New Zealand's official languages: English, te reo Māori, and New Zealand Sign Language.

Poto Williams

Disability Issues Minister Poto Williams was moved into the role less than three weeks ago. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The new ministry represents a victory for disability rights campaigners who have fought for such a move for more than four decades, but it will be led by a non-disabled person - for now - after complications with recruitment.

Technically a departmental agency within the Ministry of Social Development, Whaikaha will be operationally independent but will share corporate and back-office services.

It offers a single point of contact within the government for disabled people, administering disability support including rolling out the Enabling Good Lives approach, and has the power to assess and recommend policy.

The Office for Disability Issues will be folded into the department, and one of its first big projects will be a law to improve accessibility across the country.

It will be initially headed by interim chief executive Geraldine Woods after recruitment processes prioritising disabled candidates stalled.

Woods is not disabled, but in a statement announcing her appointment yesterday the Public Service Commission said there had been a delay in finalising the appointment due to the personal circumstances of its preferred candidate, who was.

Disabled communities were frustrated by the appointment of the establishment group's executive director Justine Cornwall last year, saying appointing someone who is not disabled themselves went against the "nothing about us, without us" ethos which has long been a central message of the disability rights movement.

Woods has been acting as co-chair of the establishment group, and before that was an executive director at Queensland's Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services for several years.

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni, who until this month was also the Disability Issues Minister and has led the project in government to this point, said the disabled community had waited decades for this moment.

"The changes being shepherded through are a reflection of hard work and advocacy from across the sector," she said.

She said the establishment unit, governance group and community steering group had also been making "rapid and pragmatic decisions" informed by community consultation to stand up the ministry today.

Her successor, Poto Williams, said she looked forward to working together with the ministry to achieve the shared vision of transforming Aotearoa into a non-disabling society.

"The new ministry will start the ball rolling with ensuring the ministry's culture and values are mana-enhancing, the governance and partnership arrangements are meaningful, and the mechanisms that will give effect to disabled peoples voices are enduring," she said.

She said it would work to improve outcomes across a range of sectors including employment, education, health, justice and wellbeing.

"Having worked across the community, voluntary and social services sectors, including in residential disability services, I'm looking forward to engaging with the disability community to achieve better outcomes for our disabled people."

The decision to establish Whaikaha was announced by the government in October, but its official name has not been known until now.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it offered some delayed hope to a sector which had been promised action after the Heather Simpson-led Health and Disability System Review largely disregarded and entirely failed to consult with disabled people.

It coincides with that of the health system reforms which combine the country's 20 district health boards into the new Health New Zealand organisation, sitting alongside the Māori Health Authority.

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