20 Jun 2017

Hey Nicky Wagner! Your words matter

11:53 am on 20 June 2017

Her comments add to a painful history of disability being seen as a burden.


I have a vocation I never signed up for, one I was born into, if you like.  

I have a disability. The wheelchair I use often attracts awkward questions from people who intrude upon my day – well intentioned and curious - to ask what happened, and often to tell me they can’t imagine living my life. I joke to friends, that it is “part of the cripple job description” to explain that I am ok and not pining after a body and life I’ve never known.

By the same token, being repeatedly confronted by a world that has not been designed with me and my needs in mind can wear me down. It is not always smooth sailing. It is also not something I can walk away from. 

When Nicky Wagner flippantly tweeted that she would rather be out on Auckland Habour than in meetings in her capacity as Minister for Disability Issues, I did not see the supposed sense of humour in her comments. I saw a disregard for the significance of her role and its importance for the community she represents.

Wagner has since been quick to tweet her apologies, stating she did not mean to cause offence.

Bill English defended his Minister’s comments in an interview. He dismissed the online reaction as “Twittersphere outrage” and believed that the disability community would have not take offence.

Intent or no, both these politicians should be showing a better awareness of their disabled constituency. They should be showing us in words and actions that they value people with disabilities, our potential contribution to Aotearoa New Zealand and, in particular, our engagement on a civic level.

People with disabilities hail from a long history of being spoken for. Disability activists have had to fight for the right for us to live our lives in public, without shame or discrimination. Historically, disability support fell to families rather than the state. The right to attend schools alongside our peers, though legislated for, is all too frequently ignored.

Our civic citizenship as well continues to be lacking. Having been elected to Parliament, Mojo Mathers, who is deaf, was still faced with fighting for the technology, which would enable her to follow debates in the House. It is only since her time as an MP that future politicians with disabilities can be legally assured they will not have to use the usual Parliamentary support budget, allocated to all MPs, on the disability-related adaptions they require to simply carry out their work.

Wagner’s comments illustrated a critical way in which she is out of touch with our community. While disability may well be a dull portfolio she would like to leave on her desk for the afternoon, people living with disabilities cannot simply opt for a mini-break. She seemed ignorant of the fact that her tweet’s quippy phrasing implied her work was drudgery she’d rather be rid of. She failed to see that her comments added to a long and painful history of disability being seen as a burden.

 For people with disabilities, who face barriers to their access to wider society the internet can play a huge part in how they interact with the world and stay politically involved.

Apologising, she said she should “think before I tweet”, and it was a shame people “shone light on her silly words” rather than the work being done.  It still unclear if she has seriously considered the implications of her words.

When questioned, the Prime Minister could have taken the opportunity to engage with how and why Wagner’s comments may have offended us. He could have been ready to underline the importance of respecting people with disabilities a people and our lives. His response was inadequate.

His belief that the disability community was not offended is not well supported. His dismissal of our “outrage” on the grounds it took place on the internet is simplistic. For people with disabilities, who face barriers to their access to wider society the internet can play a huge part in how they interact with the world and stay politically involved.

Labour and the Greens have called for Wagner’s resignation. This seems unlikely. However, the disability community is worthy of braver, bolder political leadership. We should not have to deal with profound incompetence when it comes to people whose job it is to be our voice on a national stage.

Cover image: Luke McPake/The Wireless using photos from RNZ/123RF/Twitter