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Paula Tesoriero Discusses Accessibility and NZ's response to COVID-19

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

Paula Tesoriero is currently serving within the Human Rights Commission as the Disability Rights Commissioner. She works to promote and protect the rights of disabled New Zealanders.  

We sat down with Paula to discuss New Zealand's response to COVID-19, and whether or not Deaf and hard of hearing New Zealanders, and those with other disabilities, were kept informed and given access to essential information.

What were some of the challenges New Zealanders with disabilities faced during the COVID-19 Lockdown?

"While I acknowledge we were responding to an unprecedented crisis, COVID19 has shone the light on existing gaps and barriers that disabled people face. Disabled people started from behind so many were disproportionately impacted. I was alerted to problems with the availability of timely official information in alternative formats in a fast-changing environment; difficulties in getting Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and appropriate guidance for its use which also affected the availability of support workers; difficulties with shopping for groceries online and in-store when faced with the “one shopper” rules and long queues; no access to respite services; difficulties with access to teacher aides and behavioural support; problems with accessible public transport to get to essential services; the closure of public toilet facilities; concerns about abuse in some ‘bubbles’, and issues with loneliness and connecting with family and friends. Also what we saw in New Zealand was a genuine fear about the health rationing decisions happening overseas that were impacting on disabled people.

Some good things have emerged, and we must hold on to them. One positive was the introduction by the Ministry of Health of substantially more flexible funding arrangements for people who access disability support services so they could have greater choice and control over their individual budgets. Government agencies breaking down silos and working together in a much more collaborative way and we would want to see that continue.

The pandemic has shown us how we can work differently. Flexible employment arrangements and greater reliance on technology all have the potential to enrich the lives of disabled people and be the circuit-breaker needed to improve the unemployment rates for disabled people, nearly twice that of non-disabled people in New Zealand."

Do you have any specific examples of how the National State of Emergency response to COVID-19 impacted on the Deaf and hard of hearing community in New Zealand?

"One of the positive illustrations of communication was the use of NZ Sign Language in the daily televised online briefings by the Prime Minister and Director-General of Health. Deaf Aotearoa reports that more opportunities for interpreters have been opening up and sign classes have been hugely popular, with some selling out across the country.

I know there were frustrating delays in getting sign language videos onto official websites even though they were produced in time and available. There were reported communication issues due to the use of masks covering mouths making it hard to lipread and hear mask wearers.

Good efforts were made to provide home-learning materials in a range of formats, though some children and families would have found it difficult if they could not access their usual learning support staff.

Healthline did not have txt communication available, so that made it hard for Deaf and hard of hearing to access information and support from Healthline. The Relay service was at times overloaded, so that alternative was not always available."

What engagement did you have with the Government prior to the National State of Emergency Response being put in place?

"Existing relationships from my usual advocacy work on issues across Government agencies opened doors for me to ask what was being put in place for disabled people, offer advice, and to monitor and raise issues at the highest levels.

I liaised with colleagues in the disability sector about their concerns and what they thought was needed. Early on I helped initiate an alternative formats communication hub which started in the Ministry of Health and then went cross-Government, this ensured information was created though there were some problems with then making all of it available.

My existing relationships in the Ministry of Education, for example, meant we could advocate to do even more to close the gaps in their provision of home learning resources."

How were the needs of New Zealanders with disabilities accounted for?

"There wasn’t an umbrella strategy to considering the needs of disabled New Zealanders though this was called for. Because policies and approaches were on an agency basis there was real variability in whether the needs of disabled people were taken into account. Where gaps already existed in how disabled people are considered, these were exacerbated in the emergency.

For example, we know that robust data on information about disabled people is seriously lacking. When trying to identify disabled people who may need welfare checks, the Ministry of Social Development and Ministry of Health databases could not communicate. Few agencies collected information about how the emergency impacted on disabled people.

A positive response in the private sector was the supermarket chains quickly trying to prioritise online shopping slots for people who most needed them, though demand outstripped supply for the first few weeks.

The Human Rights Commission issued a “snapshot” report in Alert Level 4 that identified some key issues for disabled people that needed addressing. The Human Rights Commission is a member of the Independent Monitoring Mechanism along with the Office for the Ombudsman and Disabled Peoples Organisations Coalition.

Some things about the emergency benefited disabled people even though they weren’t specifically intended to, for example, many employers were suddenly able to introduce flexible work arrangements so staff could work from home. These arrangements were not in place before the emergency because of concerns about productivity or cost or other reasons that were disproved in the crisis. My hope is that these sorts of initiatives can continue in the recovery and beyond."

Do you have any recommendations to better ensure New Zealanders with disabilities are not falling through the gaps during a national crisis?

"A national disaster response founded on a human rights approach with a disability rights lens is needed. Disabled people’s representatives must be part of designing this strategy and involved in planning, responding, and monitoring responses and recovery issues.

A good start was made after the Christchurch Earthquakes but the recent crisis showed that these plans are not always widely known, or go out the window when people are working at pace. We have to make sure processes and plans are living, and regularly renewed, reviewed and updated."

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