Housing accessibility and human rights

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by NIKKI STOKES

This article will appear in Fightback’s upcoming September issue on Accessibility. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($NZ20 annually) or print magazine ($NZ60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

When our landlord issued a 90 day notice of intent to take back occupation of the home my young family had been renting for two years, I did what most people in my generation have had to do at some point; I spent hours of my time desperately scouring real estate websites, publications and new paper listings in hopes of finding another home to rent at a time when demand significantly outstrips supply.

Unlike the majority of hopeful tenants, however, I dismissed most of the available properties without forwarding an application. Instead I went into the Ministry of Social Development and applied for social housing in hope they could make up for the lack of private rental houses that would be even minimally accessible to my mobility impaired daughter.

I was advised to continue looking for private housing and to keep my daughter’s disability a secret to prevent any discomfort from potential landlords. The wait time for social housing would be months, perhaps years, and emergency housing providers would unlikely be able or willing to accommodate a family with our requirements.

By luck we were able to secure a private rental and with some hefty funding for a temporary ramp, hoist system and fancy shower chair, the house was made minimally accessible to her basic care needs.

Housing and erasure

While stories like this are seldom heard in the well chewed-over discussions on housing challenges and solutions, they are hardly isolated.

In October 2017 the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing presented a report on the right to adequate housing for persons with disabilities1. The report highlights the fact that globally, the right to adequate housing remains beyond reach for most persons with disability and that legislation and policy have generally ignored the need for action to protect the right to housing for disabled people.

For people with disabilities, being unable to access suitable and secure housing compromises the choices available to them within their communities. If housing cannot be secured, a person may be forced into living with family members beyond a time period that they feel is appropriate. If housing is not suitably accessible, or cannot be reasonably modified to enable independence, a person may find themselves reliant on disability support workers. If housing is not located convenient to community facilities, support, employment or reliable and accessible public transport, a person with disabilities may find themselves isolated and struggling to participate fully in society.This creates vulnerability as disabled people are forced into situations where they cannot fully exercise their human rights. and reinforces harmful narratives of the burden of disability on society.

In such a society disabled people are actively erased. While 2013 census data estimated that a total of 1.1 million people, or 24% of New Zealanders were disabled it is estimated that only 2% of our housing stock is accessible. As the United Nations report says: “Most housing and development is designed as if persons with disabilities do not exist, will not live there or deserve no consideration”.

While numerous organisations and consumer groups representing various disabled groups have highlighted the urgent need for minimum accessibility standards and action for access to adequate housing, little meaningful action has occured at Government level. Housing accessibility is protected in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities2, to which New Zealand is a signatory. It is therefore fundamental to our responsibilities to Disabled People that any future policy or initiatives intended to address housing be centred around ensuring a minimum level of accessibility.

Is KiwiBuild accessible?

The term “universal design” was coined by the architect Ronald Mace to describe the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life3. When comparing the cost of incorporating Universal Design into new builds against the cost of retrofitting those same builds, it soon becomes clear that failure to ensure accessibility in housing policy and initiatives is not only creating undue hardship to to persons with disability, but it is a poor economic choice in the longterm. According to the research, testing and consulting organisation BRANZ (www.branz.co.nz), building using concepts of Universal Design would add little additional cost (around $3,000 per dwelling). Yet retrofitting a building that has not been built to an accessible standard may well cost over $20,000.

The much-lauded KiwiBuild programme has made no assurances to or carried out consultation with any of the organisations representing disabled people. This seems at best counter productive to the purpose of state funded housing projects, and at worst a significant breach of Human Rights. A society that intends to be inclusive must begin with fully accessible communities, including access to housing for disabled people, and also “visitablity” – the ability to access the homes of friends, family and community members to ensure full and uncompromised participation in society.

The costs of not building new homes or carrying out renovations to a minimum standard of accessibility are significant, and in New Zealand that cost falls upon our already very stretched Health system. Funding for modifications is difficult and time-consuming to access, has strict limits that place financial burdens on disabled people and their families, and is not accessible to people who are unable to secure stable long term accommodation.

Recently Phil Twyford, the Minister championing the Kiwibuild programme was invited to speak at the Universal Design Conference of 2018. While his speech conveyed his recognition of the challenges of access to housing to that disabled people face and a need to ensure a diversity of housing stock to meet a diversity of need and family structure, it is concerning that no firm commitment has been made to ensure that a minimum standard of accessibility will be applied to the Kiwibuild programme.

Community connections

It was also announced in September this year that a new social housing development has been planned for Otara, incorporating features to meet the needs of disabled tenants. While 71 apartments have been planned for the development, only seven ground level apartments have been specifically planned to accommodate mobility impaired individuals. While there are many disabilities and needs beyond mobility impairment, this does not reflect that 14% of New Zealanders (over half of the disability community) have a mobility impairment.

Moreover, for people with disability, the ability to maintain connections with their communities and supports are vital. Creating separate communities for disabled people to exist in, rather than ensuring all housing provides the ability to accommodate all disabilities, forces people with disabilities to be cut off from their supports, their communities and to remain invisible.

As a carer the strain of inadequate housing cannot be understated. It has created an ongoing cycle of instability and crisis for our family. The struggle to find adequate housing in our local community has forced us to sever ties with our support networks, deal with transfer and inconsistency of service provision and case management, feel frequently vulnerable and exposed having unfamiliar care staff coming into our home, and struggle to find inclusive social situations. The lack of access to fully accessible housing or to state funded modifications has required that my physical safety and the safety of my child be compromised in the process of providing basic care.

Leaving disabled people vulnerable and without choices, and placing additional strain on their families and carers by failing to ensure adequate housing, continues to result in terrible human rights abuses for people with disabilities. We have a responsibility and the capability to ensure that adequate and secure housing is an accessible right for all.

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Toi Ora: Making the arts accessible

tishyartby Tricia Hall

This article will appear in Fightback’s upcoming September issue on Accessibility. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($NZ20 annually) or print magazine ($NZ60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

When we talk about accessibility too often the discussion ends with the basics of food and shelter. But to be a fully accessible society for all we need to consider people in a holistic manner. Providing for physical emotional and spiritual needs can mean different things to different people, and how easily people can get these needs met also varies.

For those who have experienced Mental Health or other issues, accessing something like the Arts comes well down the priority list after shelter, food, medications and other treatments, transportation – all things that cost money in our society. However, it is precisely access to arts and community that people find allows them to live meaningful and fulfilling lives. We need to recognise the importance of having access to community – whether that is arts, sports, spiritual or something else, and that this is a fundamental human right for all.

For some years I have been a part of a community called Toi Ora, both as an artist, tutor and part of the strategic board. Toi Ora is an art space in central Auckland which provides classes across the spectrum of arts for people who have experienced Mental Health or substance abuse issues.

Toi Ora was set up in 1995 by a group of artists with lived experience of Mental Health issues who recognized that an important part of living well was finding something you liked doing and a community to support you to do it. Unlike so much of the health system, particularly those parts dealing with Mental Health, Toi Ora is not about what is wrong in people’s lives, but rather what is right. People are artists, musicians, writers – not whatever label society or the system may have placed upon them.

How Toi Ora works

Toi Ora provides a schedule of regular classes during term times in the visual arts, drama, music, creative writing and more. Members are encouraged to be part of running the studio in volunteer roles. The staff at Toi Ora have either their own personal experiences of unwellness, extensive training in mental health and/or the arts, or both. All tutors are practicing artists, writers or musicians.

Members do not pay to join Toi Ora, and professional-quality materials are provided. People who join are signed up for one or more classes and fill in an enrolment form for each term. When they first join, a staff person will give them an orientation to ensure they understand what is expected of them, including what is appropriate behavior whilst using Toi Ora services.

Toi Ora’s membership criteria are personal experience of mental unwellness, which means a diversity of members both with long-term illnesses, and those who have recently had their first episode of unwellness. Members’ artistic abilities also vary, and Toi Ora is able to cater for a range of levels from absolute beginners to established artists.

There is some provision for space for independent projects to take place alongside classes, and there is also usually at least one artist in residence supported by the Toi Ora Trust. When Toi Ora moved to its current premises in 2009, we acquired gallery space in which to showcase our members’ artwork with regular exhibitions.

A large part of Toi Ora’s funding comes from the Auckland District Health Board, which only covers the central part of Auckland – so we are not able to admit new members who live in the western or southern parts of the Super-City. The service has regular audits to ensure that the DHB is getting “value for money”.

Other sources of funding have come through applying for philanthropic or other grants, usually for specific projects including the Express Yourself youth programme, October Gig, events promoting Mental Health Awareness Week, The Outsider Art Fair and more. Some of these have been organized in conjunction with groups or organisations such as Circability, Mapura studio, Mental Health Foundation, Clubhouse, Studio One Toi Tū and others within both Arts and Health fields.

Safety and accessibility

It can sometimes be challenging to cater for the varied needs and abilities of members in such a way that Toi Ora remains accessible for all. Alongside Mental unwellness there is an element of risk, and Toi Ora has strong policy guidelines for managing this.

All members sign an agreement when they first join to adhere to these guidelines, and if staff notice someone showing signs of potential unwellness they will speak to that member to encourage them to take appropriate steps to look after themselves. Toi Ora is a supportive community, and while not specifically therapy oriented, sometimes people may find that emotional triggers may occur during their time in the studio or classes. When this happens, either peers or staff will usually support the distressed person, and if necessary involve other support people if appropriate.

Tricia’s story

When I first came to Toi Ora around 2001, I was coming out of a period of ill health that had really shaken my confidence. I had dropped out of university and moved back in with my parents. Coming to a couple of classes a week at Toi Ora provided the beginnings of routine, a place to be, and understanding people to connect with.

Quite early in my time at Toi Ora I volunteered to be a member of the Trust Board. Part of the initial deed when Toi Ora was first set up included that the Board should have a percentage of members who had personal lived experience of Mental Health issues and were current members of Toi Ora. I was a part of the Board for several years, including as Chairperson until I stepped down as part of my maternity leave.

When one of the long-term tutors left, I was offered the role of art tutor for the beginners’ painting class, initially as a shared position. I have also filled in tutoring other classes such as Mosaics, Printmaking and Creative Writing and worked as a tutor with groups of young people across various arts as part of the Express Yourself programme (this is not currently running anymore due to lack of available funding)

Over the years I have also has support and opportunities from Toi Ora in various forms. I have been part of group exhibitions and performances both at Toi Ora and other galleries/venues and was able to put together a solo exhibition in 2011. I have also been supported as a delegate to conferences, and supported in learning New Zealand Sign Language, as Toi Ora extended a welcome to the Deaf community with specific workshops and exhibitions.

When my now feisty two-year-old daughter was born, I took maternity leave as a tutor for a year, but during that time stayed in contact with the studio. I even attended a few classes with my baby in tow, recognizing the importance for me of remaining connected with other adults and my own interests as I navigated to first year of my daughter’s life and struggled with mild post-natal depression. I have since returned to tutoring one day a week.

During 2017 I also had the privilege of being a participant on the Be Leadership programme, a leadership programme set over 10 months including some residential components. Participants develop new frames of thinking around leadership through having new and challenging conversations with each other and prominent leaders throughout New Zealand. I was fortunate to be able to attend the programme with my baby (who was 4 months old at the start of the programme) and to be a part of discussions around accessibility for all.

In defence of meds (and neurochemistry): Notes from a bipolar socialist

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by Ani White

This article will appear in Fightback’s upcoming September issue on Accessibility. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($NZ20 annually) or print magazine ($NZ60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

Content warning: This article discusses a range of mental health conditions, including bipolar and suicidality.

Bipolar (definition): A mental condition characterised by depression and mania.

Mania (definition): An abnormally elevated mood state characterized by such symptoms as inappropriate elation, increased irritability, severe insomnia, grandiose notions, increased speed and/or volume of speech, disconnected and racing thoughts, increased sexual desire, markedly increased energy and activity level, poor judgment, and inappropriate social behavior.1

“…depression isn’t about brain chemistry at all, it’s about social context.” This turn of phrase, coming from a friend over dinner, set off immediate alarm bells. At all? Isn’t that simplistic? Surely brain chemistry and social context interact? My friend was recommending some fellow published in The Guardian, so while arguing back I agreed to look into it.

In the article2, author Johann Hari does actually acknowledge briefly that brain chemistry is a factor, and that medication can help, but strongly emphasises that improving peoples’ social conditions is necessary to alleviate depression and anxiety. I agree with all of this. High rates of mental distress in our society result from a brutally exploitative system that alienates us from ourselves, and a kinder (socialist!) society would result in better mental health outcomes. My point here isn’t about Hari, the ethics of his behaviour3, or the details of his work (I should admit upfront to not having reading his book, only the article). It’s about the popularity of his work, and the dangers associated with a simplified interpretation of it. I should also acknowledge that friends of mine with bipolar and borderline personality disorder find Hari’s work useful, so this is not intended to speak for all bipolar people.

However, I personally believe that what Hari says is most accurate and pertinent for people suffering from situational depression and anxiety. We should be careful about extending Hari’s arguments too far. They should not be blindly mapped onto all mental conditions. And I don’t accept that all mental illness is socially determined – Hari does not argue this, but it’s a common leftist outlook that Hari might appear superficially to confirm.

I’m bipolar (see byline for definition). One of my uncles experienced schizophrenia and committed suicide, another uncle experiences bipolar, my sister has experienced hypomania and depression. The evidence seems clear that bipolar is heritable,4 and given my family history it seems pretty likely my bipolar is inherited. This doesn’t mean social context is irrelevant: changes in my life have helped trigger my manic episodes for example. However, the phrase “depression isn’t about brain chemistry at all” isn’t useful for my situation, including my depressed periods. My brain does chemically have a greater tendency towards ‘imbalances’ than other brains, and my treatment has to acknowledge that. It’s common that bipolar is initially misdiagnosed as simply depression/anxiety, leading to treatment that can make the situation worse: for example, antidepressants can set off mania, as they did in my case. Our brains are simply not like other brains (this is not distinct to bipolar people – patterns in brain chemistry vary widely).

My bipolar diagnosis made a big difference to recovery, enabling a more appropriate treatment plan (including appropriate meds, talk therapy, and broader changes in my life). After 28 years with undiagnosed bipolar, the 2 years since my diagnosis have been marked by significant recovery. Over that time, I’ve also found that while many people are aware of how depression works, mania (again, see byline) is not widely understood.

Mental health advocates around the world have launched a number of prominent depression awareness campaigns. Depression is a common issue: about 15% of Australians will suffer from depression, compared to about 1.8% experiencing bipolar. With overstretched and underfunded mental health systems, there are inestimable challenges facing mental health advocates, and raising awareness of the most common mental health disorders does make sense as a priority. However, people with rarer mental health conditions exist, and our conditions remain widely misunderstood.

Reactions to Kanye West are a case in point (hear me out). The recent announcement of his bipolar diagnosis did not surprise me at all. What’s notable, unusual about Kanye’s manic episodes is that they’re broadcast across the world. Every manic person embarrasses themselves, most do not do it on the evening news. Kanye’s episodes are otherwise quite typical of mania: delusions of grandeur, ranting, a general disconnection from the social body. I do not mean to excuse everything Kanye has said, particularly his endorsement of the alt right. Kanye has millions of dollars, not something most bipolar people can claim, so this probably factors into some of the disconnected ideas he expresses. Bipolar people must take responsibility; I myself have fucked up, behaving inappropriately while manic. Manic people may lack filters, but the ideas we express do come from our brains.

However, it seems to me that many who would not mock a celebrity’s depression will mock a celebrity’s manic behaviour. In a mental health support group online, I saw a comment dismissing Kanye as on the ‘delusion train.’ It struck me as unlikely that anyone in that space would dismiss someone on the ‘depression train’ (even a multi-millionaire such as Robin Williams).

In my experience, even those who do not mock manic delusions understandably find them confusing. This is not just because the ideas manic people express are confusing, though they often are; it’s also that there is no script for dealing with these episodes the way there is for depression.

During a video posted on Facebook, Johann Hari repeatedly emphasised that “you’re not crazy.” This is affirming for many. However, I prefer to acknowledge that manic episodes are crazy. They involve delusions, incoherence, reckless behaviour. For some of us, it may be more useful to acknowledge that insanity is part of the spectrum of human behaviour than to imply that nobody is crazy. Perhaps talk of ‘insanity’ is stigmatising, and I don’t insist everyone use it; my point is more that we need to be frank about the realities of mania.

Brains will always be diverse. This may manifest as mood imbalances. Moods and perceptions would not all be stable and identical under socialism. It may be that periods of lower energy and mood – what we call depression – would be accepted, not punished as ‘unproductive’, a punitive approach that only exacerbates depressive spirals. In other words, yes, mental distress would be alleviated, likely leading to lower rates of depression and anxiety. But this would not mean the eradication of complex, varied, sometimes ‘imbalanced’ brains – and meds would likely continue to help.

Perhaps a defence of neurochemistry and medication is unnecessary; meds continue to be the mental health system’s first port of call. However, my concern is that those who rightly call attention to social context do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Is Auckland’s public transport becoming more or less accessible?

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By Daphne Lawless

This article will appear in Fightback’s upcoming September issue on Accessibility. To support our work, consider subscribing to our e-publication ($NZ20 annually) or print magazine ($NZ60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

Increasing the use of public transport – buses, trains, ferries and trams/light rail – and reducing reliance on private cars is recognized by most on the Left and centre as an essential part of the transition to a sustainable, post-capitalist future. Capitalism’s devotion to private cars and the roading needed to make them usable has – as previous Fightback articles have explained1 – contributed to the destruction of working-class and Pasefika communities in Auckland, as well as making large areas of land unusable for agriculture or housing. That’s not even to mention the huge waste of resources and labour going into road-building, or the toll of deaths and injuries on our roads.

But consider the public transport you actually know in your city. Is it good enough to enable you to live life to the fullest? Or would you not be able to function in life if you didn’t have your own private car? The real goal of a public transport system should be to make working, living and playing Accessible to all citizens, whether they own a car or not – and whatever their physical or mental health, or their family needs. It doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say that current (run-down, under-funded, inefficient) systems don’t cut it – but what kind of changes do we need?

Economic accessibility

Since the “Super-City” amalgamation of Auckland in 2010 – 1.5 million people under one council – many steps have been taken to throw 60 years of motorway madness into reverse gear. Some of the most significant have been electrified trains and recent rationalisation of our bus services into “New Networks”. But is there a danger that improvements in public transport – and other recent reforms to housing and urban design, aiming for a more sustainable and liveable city – might end up becoming yet another public good “captured” by the already privileged – either socio-economically, or in terms of physical mobility?

The current Labour-led government recently granted a long-standing request for the Auckland Council to impose a fuel tax to pay for further public transport improvements. From a mainstream economic point of view, putting up the price of petrol is an efficient “polluter pays” system which not only earns money but gives an “economic signal” to people to not use their cars so much.

Unfortunately, driving less is simply not an option for many working people. Many will tell you that owning a private car is simply compulsory – it’s like a tax. Because of shift work or the location of many large work sites on the city fringes, public transport simply won’t get you there efficiently or reliably, and you’ll get fired. Then there’s the need to do shopping, take the kids to school or to sports, and so on.

These things are of course much simpler if you work an office job in the city and you’re able to live within walking/cycling distance of schools and shops. But – with Auckland’s property market out of control, to the benefit of those who gentrified the inner-city neighbourhoods in the 1980s – living somewhere you don’t need to own a car has become, paradoxically, a privilege of the mainly Pākehā middle classes.

As previously discussed, “economic apartheid” over the last 60 years has restricted working people, especially from migrant communities, to sprawling, auto-dependent outer suburbs. And the current property bubble only makes things worse. Worse still, it is these very privileged suburbs who have gotten the lion’s share of the benefits of recent transport improvements2:

Auckland’s public transport accessibility is performing “poorly”, a newly released report says. Using 2013 census data and 2015 public transport data it found Auckland’s network performance was significantly lower than Brisbane, Perth and Vancouver.

Highest levels of accessibility tended to be centralised within Auckland, while its fringes, especially to the south and east, were worse off.

Accessibility was determined by a commuter’s ability to reach their workplace by bus, train or ferry within 30-minutes during peak morning traffic.

Low-income families tended to be confined to distant neighbourhoods with less public transport infrastructure, meaning they had fewer opportunities to find good jobs.

Greater Auckland editor Matthew Lowrie said Auckland’s public transport system had been largely focused on improving connections to the centre city, with the fringes seeing little improvement.

Auckland councillor Efeso Collins, from the working-class and multicultural Manukau ward, had this to say in a recent article:3

Due to low household incomes, my community doesn’t have the luxury of paying additional tax now, to benefit future generations. For those who are struggling to provide basic necessities for their whānau, further tax, no matter how well-intentioned in principle, can seem impossible…

Sam Warburton, an Economist and Research Fellow for The New Zealand Initiative… identified that less fuel-efficient cars are likely to be owned by low-income families. Sam makes specific mention of Māori and Pacific Island families who tend to own big vans and cars that are typically not fuel-efficient, which will result in a disproportionately high fuel tax contribution. From my experience growing up in Ōtara, I would absolutely agree with this sentiment.

User-pay schemes are fair in practice when users have alternative options at their disposal. If you live closer to centralised services, it might be a very easy choice to make, to ditch your private vehicle for a bus, train or even bike. Or, you might earn enough to barely notice the relatively small increase to your petrol costs and make the choice to continue to drive. However, this argument doesn’t always stack-up when you consider the average Manukau commuter.

Public transport advocates in Auckland – such as those associated with the Greater Auckland lobby group – do not dismiss concerns like those raised by councillor Collins. But their main counterargument is that there is no political alternative to the fuel tax. Raising income taxes – or establishing a capital gains tax – are politically excluded under this centrist Coalition government which is terrified that those who are doing well out of the asset bubble will desert them at the ballot box. At the Auckland Council level, an increase in rates (property taxes) targeting the millionaire beneficiaries of the real estate bubble would seem fair – and would be just as politically impossible.

We are left, then, with an impossible choice – either we are stuck with the inefficient, unhealthy, polluting and deadly status quo; or we get already impoverished working people to pay for the improvements we need. Only if working people become politically organized so that our voices become as loud and as clearly heard as those of the gentrification millionaires of Herne Bay and Westmere will we be able to get out of this trap.

Physical accessibility

Public transport is all the more necessary for those with special mobility needs, who would often have to pay for special adaptations to a private car to be able to use one. But – especially in cities with established public transport networks – massive investment is often needed to make it possible to make public transport physically accessible. For example, in Wellington, some ramps leading to train stations are too steep for wheelchairs – and upgrading them is “not a priority”.4

Auckland Transport has trumpeted that its “New Network” – being rolled out gradually over Auckland – will effectively deal with many of the problems of socio-economic accessibility mentioned above. By moving to a system where people transfer between buses or trains at major hubs – rather than taking long journeys on a single bus – they argue, much more frequent and useful bus services are possible to outer areas using equal or lesser resources.5

Although Auckland’s New Network hasn’t been as disastrous as the recent reorganization of bus services in Wellington6, it has attracted criticism precisely because of its reliance on transfers. Many of the complaints about the New Network have been about the need to cross busy roads to make transfers; or about the safety issues with having to wait at isolated bus stops after dark.7 Issues of safety are, of course, accessibility issues in themselves, and reasons why the “steel box” of the private car might become more appealing.

We are therefore faced with the possibility that changes to public transport to make it more economically accessible might paradoxically reduce physical accessibility – if sufficient care is not taken with the details. One example of the possible blindness of Auckland Transport’s leaders to these physical/safety accessibility issues was an infamous comment made by City Rail Link project director Chris Meale in an interview with The Spinoff’s Simon Wilson, last year. Wilson wanted to know why the only entrance to the Karangahape Road underground train station would be some way down relatively steep Mercury Lane8:

I asked why there won’t be escalators rising to Karangahape Rd itself.

“That’s not a difficult walk,” he said. “It’s good for you.”

Not difficult for him or me, perhaps, but moderately fit adults are not exactly the benchmark for ease of use.

Thankfully, the uproar about this comment seems to have shifted some thoughts and a second, more level entrance to the station is now planned.9 But this – combined with Wellington’s ramp slope issues mentioned above – emphasise how much accessibility to public transport is not so much about the vehicles themselves, but about the “last mile problem” – actually being able to get to or from the stops and/or stations.

The New Zealand Transport Agency offers a service called “Total Mobility” which offers “subsidised licensed taxi services to people who have an impairment that prevents them” from using public transport safely or effectively, mostly because of the “last mile” problem .10 However – as with many Government welfare initiatives – it is poorly advertised and many people who would benefit from this system don’t even know it exists, let alone how to apply for it.

What is to be done?

Even though it was an initiative of the conservative-populist New Zealand First party, the “Super Gold Card” – guaranteeing free public transport to the over-65s – shows how socially beneficial such universal entitlements (without having to jump through the hoops of needs-testing) can be. Reducing the need for all elders to drive is good not only for their own health and safety, but for that of the wider community. It came as a shock to this writer to find out that there is no equivalent scheme for the physically impaired in this country – “Total Mobility” only offers a partial subsidy for public transport.

As this article has discussed, public transport must become both physically accessible (including safety at stops and stations) for all, as well as becoming socio-economically accessible. Socialists have long pushed “zero fares” as the simplest means of achieving the latter goal; but making public transport useful by providing more and better services for people living and working in the far-flung suburbs is surely equally important.

Some other ideas were suggested a few years ago in a discussion document from Australia’s Socialist Alliance11:

  • Some people with disabilities need to be accompanied on public transport by an attendant, in which case the attendant should also be able to travel for free.
  • Regularly retrain all customer service staff in the rights, needs and entitlements of all people with disabilities.
  • Re-open all station toilet facilities and build new facilities on platforms and at tram/bus
  • Test out all vehicle destination signs and other written information by running them past committees of vision-impaired and elderly passengers.
  • Stop the misleading spin on accessible public transport and tell the truth about whether people with disabilities can easily access these vehicles without assistance, whether they really feel comfortable accessing these services, whether there is enough room for wheelchairs and guide dogs or enough assistance in using the services.
  • Develop faster, more energy efficient, and more robust electric wheelchairs and scooters so that people with disabilities can make short trips without needing public transport or cars, and with less need to recharge or service their chairs.

Accessibility and why it matters

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Patricia Hall is a queer mum of a 6-month-old, who has been working in the Creative Disability sector for some years. This year Tricia is a participant in the Be Leadership programme, which focuses on creating a more accessible society for everyone.

This was written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Urban Revolution and the Right to the City.

All humans have fundamental needs to which they have a right:

  • Food and clean water
  • Warm, dry shelter
  • Connection
  • Meaningful contribution (paid or otherwise)
  • Access to affordable, appropriate healthcare

We are also diverse and have various specific needs, which are no less important and should also be human rights. Historically those with higher basic needs, whether based on physical or sensory disability, gender, or being part of a minority culture within a larger more dominant society, have had to pay dearly and fight hard to have these needs met. Some may even have been institutionalised or otherwise isolated from society as too difficult, and sadly this still happens for some people.

However, if we turn this around from placing the onus on those who are “different” and instead focus on designing our world and cities to cater for all people, we begin to make lives more liveable for all of us. Statistics tell us that currently twenty percent of the New Zealand population is living with some form of disability. Even if we ourselves are not in that twenty percent, we do not live in isolation, all of us have friends, whanau, neighbours and all of us benefit from a more accessible world.

To give an example of how this is applied: improving access for wheelchair users also makes public (and private) places more accessible to parents with small children in pushchairs, to those with varying degrees of mobility issues, older people, and those with chronic illnesses. Accessibility means we can all enjoy the same spaces together, irrespective of these needs. Note also that not everyone’s needs are visible. For example, someone may be entitled to use an accessible carparking space for reasons not immediately apparent to a stranger, and nor should they have to explain or defend this need.

Much attention has been drawn in the media, particularly in the United States around restrooms and gender. Providing clean accessible gender neutral restroom facilities benefits not only those on the trans* spectrum, but also provides for those who may need to assist someone else (who may, or may not be the same gender as their carer) with their toileting needs. This may be parents with small children, or an aging family member who requires assistance. We should repeat here not every access need is a visible one, and we should not judge those around us on face value. A person who appears able-bodied may require the use of a disabled restroom due to a hidden issue; perhaps Crohn’s disease or another digestive problem. Again, people should not feel they must explain to a stranger their personal reasons for needing such a facility.

Accessibility matters not just in our real-world spaces, but also virtual and digital communities. As our lives become increasingly technologically assisted it is important that these are accessible too. Videos that are subtitled, alternative texts provided for images, and the ability for text to be converted to audible resources all help a wider audience of us to interact with each other and with the digital world.

Accessibility matters. It is no longer good enough to simply add a ramp to an existing structure, or add in a hearing loop, and say we have ticked the boxes and no longer need to think about being an accessible space. Retroactively creating accessibility to existing spaces is expensive. However, when we specifically design with accessibility in mind, it ultimately creates a more liveable world for all of us.

With rebuilding after the Christchurch earthquakes, and in our biggest growing city Auckland as it evolves in the era of the Unitary Plan, we have the chance to think about how we will develop our city as it grows. We in New Zealand have the opportunity to ensure that our future spaces for living, working and enjoying our leisure time are fully accessible to all people, no matter their needs.