New Zealanders with disabilities do not have the same rights as people without disabilities, a UN committee in Geneva has said.
This week, representatives of government and civil society (non-governmental organizations) presented information and answered questions from international experts during a two-day meeting on the review of the United Nations Convention on the Human Rights Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
Aotearoa signed and ratified the Convention in 2008, with the last review in Geneva taking place in 2014.
The government delegation was led by the Minister for Disability Issues, Poto Williams, and the International Monitoring Mechanism (IMM) represented civil society, which included the Commission on Human Rights, the Ombudsman and the Coalition of disabled people’s organizations.
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Although IMM New Zealand President Dr Jonathan Godfrey acknowledged that significant progress had been made on disability issues, he said that many of the concluding observations from the 2014 review and some of the IMM’s recent recommendations remained “intact or unresolved” by the government.
“People with disabilities do not have the same enjoyment of rights, nor equality of outcomes,” said Godfrey, who is disabled himself.
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The minimum wage exemption still exists for people with disabilities, women can still be sterilized without their informed consent, and the education system still does not fully include children with disabilities, he said.
“Our levels of poverty are unacceptable – except for the New Zealand government,” he added.
He called on the UN committee to pressure the New Zealand government to “ask to be seen as a world leader in promoting the rights of New Zealanders with disabilities”.
One of the concluding observations of the 2014 review recommended that “Ministries, Crown entities and local authorities collect and publish disaggregated data on people with disabilities in their annual reports”.
And while New Zealand is now collecting more data on disability, the Human Rights Commission’s senior adviser on the rights of people with disabilities, Dr Esther Woodbury, said the figures “reveal more deep inequalities, which must be corrected”.
“Although legal reform is underway, nearly a decade after this committee’s recommendations for immediate action, a number of people with disabilities remain subject to substitute decision-making, detention and forced treatment,” she said.
The UN committee recommended that immediate action be taken to eliminate the use of seclusion and restraint in medical facilities, an issue that was raised in the 2014 findings.
In response, Amanda Bleckmann of Whaikaha said the government was developing guidelines to replace isolation and that work was underway to reduce and eliminate the use of isolation practices.
In its latest report, the IMM said it had heard of essential services for people with disabilities, such as personal care and community support, being cut without notice during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The issue was quickly raised by Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero when she launched an inquiry into disability support during the Omicron outbreak and called on the government to act urgently.
The IMM report says people with disabilities “continue to face barriers and challenges that the non-disabled population does not experience” as the country negotiates the Covid-19 response.
In the 2014 Concluding Observations, the UN committee also recommended that further measures be taken to increase employment levels for persons with disabilities and that alternatives to minimum wage exemption permits for employers of persons with disabilities be found.
Although the government is aware of the discriminatory practice, Office for the Disabled director Brian Coffey noted that there were still 800 people benefiting from the minimum wage exemption. Recent data from Stats NZ also shows that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities of working age is more than double that of people without disabilities.
In the June quarter of 2022, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities aged 15 to 64 was 7.9%. For non-disabled people in the same age group, the unemployment rate was 3.3%.
However, some areas have progressed since the 2014 review, including the extension of the Enabling Good Lives approach to disability supports, which is being rolled out nationally as part of Whaikaha.
Some forms of accessibility have also been improved since 2014.
The Marrakesh Treaty was ratified, meaning copyright legislation was lifted to help blind and visually impaired people access books in accessible formats such as Braille.
And since 2014, Able (New Zealand’s leading provider of media access services) has increased captioned content by 73% and audio-descriptive content by 292%.
The New Zealanders Accessibility Bill has also been flagged as progress towards equality for people with disabilities by the government, despite criticism from disability advocates.
Regarding the contribution of people with disabilities to the drafting and discussion of the law, Coffey said there was “considerable involvement”.
Although he acknowledged that agreement is not always “achieved” on what could go forward, he said it was civil society that had highlighted the need for legislation on the accessibility and that public servants worked regularly with people with disabilities.
Ahead of the review, Coffey admitted that implementing recommendations “takes time.”
“Even when you change policy, the difference in people’s lives takes time to see,” he said.
“So it has to be more than a paper and compliance exercise. It has to be a commitment to people with disabilities in New Zealand and making a difference in their lives as much as possible through policy and legislation.
He understands that people with disabilities are frustrated to see a difference in the community.
“There are complexities in public policy. And I don’t really have a solution for that.
Concluding New Zealand’s review, committee experts welcomed the establishment of Whaikaha – Ministry of Disability Issues, but also questioned forced sterilization and assisted death.
Committee Chair and Co-Country Rapporteur Rosemary Kayess was “very concerned” that many of the 2014 Concluding Observations had not been implemented and the government was not responding or incorporating not the recommendations of the IMM report in its work on human rights for people with disabilities.
In his closing statement, Williams said New Zealand was on a journey.
“We have made significant progress since our last review, but there is still a lot of work to do.”
Godfrey challenged the UNCRPD review panel to develop strong concluding observations that reflect the aspirations of New Zealanders with disabilities.
“Equal rights and fair outcomes are what we seek for New Zealanders with disabilities and people around the world. Is it too long to wait? »
In his closing statement, Godfrey acknowledged the 1.1 million New Zealanders with disabilities.
“Your lives matter, your experiences matter, your voices matter, even though many of you feel like you’re not being heard,” he said.
The UN Committee will issue its concluding observations in September.