Hard News by Russell Brown


How disabled people are excluded from public leadership

by Robyn Hunt

Nearly thirty years after the introduction of Equal Employment Opportunity, (EEO) into the New Zealand public service there is still an impenetrable glass ceiling for Deaf and disabled people. While government continues to “promote” employment for disabled people, career paths and advancement in the public service for people who identify as Deaf or disabled are problematic.

EEO has been relatively successful for women, who have reached a critical mass, but a timid and conservative bureaucracy seems reluctant to harness the skills and talents of nearly a quarter of the population, including disabled and Deaf women.

The Office for Disability Issues was set up in 2002 to implement the first Disability Strategy and as a disability contact point for all of government. Later it became responsible for oversight of the implementation of the Disability Rights Convention, (CRPD.)

At the time of establishment this structure within the MSD was not ideal for many in the Deaf and disabled community. There was wide discussion then about the importance of having a (qualified) director who identified as disabled or Deaf. Disabled people applied but the first director was non-disabled, as was the second. At the time of establishment a governance council was suggested, but an advisory group of Deaf and disabled people was what we got. That was not successful for a variety of reasons and was abolished.

Fifteen years later we seem to have made no progress at all. Numbers of disabled people in the public service have not been collected for many years, although they were collected in the early days of EEO, and were woefully low compared to the proportion of Deaf and disabled people in the overall population. The situation may not have changed.

More Deaf and disabled people are graduating from university. A record number of 103 Victoria University graduands had disabilities in the May 2017 graduation, the highest number for any of Victoria’s graduation periods, I frequently meet lively, smart, ambitious and talented young Deaf and disabled people, but I don’t get a sense that the public sector is keen to snap up their services. Some have joined the public service and have struggled or left. A few remain.    

Now the third director of the Office for Disability Issues has been appointed. This is not a personal criticism or attack on him. Brian Coffey is an experienced public servant with a special education background. But where is the disabled or Deaf leader who should be in the role? Where is the Deaf or disabled person who was being encouraged and career-developed for the role, an ideal opportunity?

I don’t know who applied, or what the process was. I’ve been approached in the past by recruiters for a disability NGO. When I indicated I wasn’t available to apply I was encouraged to provide other names, which I did. The role was also advertised in the usual way. A disabled person was eventually appointed on merit. That seems to be a sensible way to proceed for a role so important to the disability community.

Many years ago I wrote a paper for a Department of Labour seminar on employment. My subject was defining merit. In the paper I explored the possibilities of redefining merit to include the Deaf and disability experience as positive. But I fear that considering a broader range of life experience, skills and attributes as well as the necessary academic qualifications is a bridge too far in today’s risk-averse public service.

There’ll be no change if we always do what we always did. We’ll continue to get the same old policies and outcomes we always have, and these don’t bode well for the advancement of the rights of Deaf and disabled people, or indeed the New Zealand Public Service.

Robyn Hunt is a communications consultant via her company AccEase, a long time disability advocate and commentator and a former Human Rights Commissioner

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