Audio with transcript: how Disabled Leadership Now came to be and why the Transition Director issue is so important

In Jonathan Mosen’s popular Mosen At large Podcast, he and Pam MacNeill discuss how Disabled Leadership Now came to be, and why a group of disabled advocates were so troubled by the appointment of a nondisabled Director of the Establishment Unit for our new Ministry that they came together.


Listen to the audio or read the transcript below, and if you’re disabled, be sure to register for our protest rally which at the time of publication of this post is just a week away.


Jonathan Mosen:            Disabled New Zealanders have been advocating for it for decades, and in October last year the government announced that they would establish a ministry for disabled people, eventually consolidating services provided by the Ministry of Health and Ministry for Social Development, as well as being an advocate for the needs of disabled people throughout the state sector. The aim is to establish the ministry by the 1st of July. That’s an ambitious timeframe. And that work is being undertaken by the establishment unit. Despite disabled people with senior leadership experience applying for the role of the director of that establishment unit, to the consternation of many disabled people, a non-disabled public servant has been appointed to do that work. The news was buried in a pre-Christmas media release with a lot of talk about how disabled people would be consulted and at the table during this phase.

                                           A group of disabled leaders and advocates say that’s not good enough. They formed an organisation called Disabled Leadership Now and it’s holding an online protest rally. And I’m proud to be a part of that group. To discuss the issue with me, I’m joined by Pam McNeil. Kia ora, Pam.

Pam McNeil:                     Kia ora, Jonathan. Thank you for inviting me on. It’s a pleasure to be able to come along and talk to you about this today.

Jonathan Mosen:            Tell me a bit about how disabled leadership now came to be.

Pam McNeil:                     Well, I was one of the people who actually have applied for the establishment director role, just in the interests of transparency. And like you, I was really sure that there would be a disabled person appointed to this role at long last. And it’s been a dream of mine ever since the International Year of Disabled People in 1981, so that kind of ages and shows you how long it is that we’ve been aiming for this. And I was absolutely horrified. I felt that we’d really been played like a violin, we being the sector, by government. That they had just gone along and taken what, no doubt to them, seemed like a very safe option to appoint a senior public servant. Having been a senior public servant myself, that was one of the reasons I thought that I would have a pretty good shot of getting that role.

                                           I am at an age where I’m not looking to enhance my career or anything like that, but I felt that I had a lot to offer. And I believe that all disabled people who applied for that role had a huge amount to offer, not least the cultural capital of disablement which we all bring. So we were horrified. So I sat around and stewed about it for a long time. Well, two or three days. And then I thought this is ridiculous. There’s no point in me stewing about it. Why don’t I find out what other senior activists in the disability sector feel? And when I say the sector, I’m talking about disabled people in New Zealand. So I contacted yourself and a few other people, and we all decided that actually it would be a really good idea to get together on a zoom call and discuss the issue. And that’s how DLN was born

Jonathan Mosen:            And as someone with chief executive experience in the sector and also advocacy experience, I applied as well. And I think the really interesting thing about this process was all of the disabled people that I knew about who applied were really supportive of one another. And we were all saying, look, if you get it, that’s fantastic, but the most important thing is that a disabled person ends up in the role. Why do you think that public servants felt that it was in any way going to go down as okay that a non-disabled person would have this role?

Pam McNeil:                     I have no idea how they ever thought on any planet that it would be okay. The only thing I can say is that they probably felt the timing would shield them somewhat so that the announcement was made right before Christmas. It was pointed out, as you said that some disabled people had been consulted. And I know that that was really a handful of people, certainly none of the senior people that have been around the traps a while, that I contacted to join this group. So I really have no clue how they would’ve thought it was appropriate.

                                           But one of the things that really astounds me in this whole thing is the fact that people seem to think that there’s a choice. And I know we’ve talked about this before, Jonathan, there’s a choice between having a sector led by the people it supports, in this case disabled people, and people who are have the capability and the qualifications. Now lots and lots of disabled people have both, but there’s always this implied choice that oh, well, disability in itself isn’t enough. Well, it’s got to be key cultural capital for any positions within a Ministry for Disabled People, but we also have to be suitably qualified. And every one of us was suitably qualified.

Jonathan Mosen:            It reeks of cultural insensitivity, doesn’t it? There’s something really wrong with the culture in New Zealand when it comes to disability. Because this is not just about this particular situation. In so many organisations we do not see disabled people in senior leadership roles. I think you could easily, with fingers to spare, count on the fingers of one hand the number of agencies, provider organizations, for disabled people that are run by us in this country.

Pam McNeil:                     That’s right. There’s a dearth of leadership and management by disabled people in a sector that exists in our name. And I don’t think any other grouping would put up with that at all. And it’s actually tantamount to symbolic violence to say, well, you’re not capable of doing this. And it’s complete balderdash, of course.

Jonathan Mosen:            Yeah. The fundamental problem with this is that it relies on the validation of a non-disabled person, right?

Pam McNeil:                     Yes.

Jonathan Mosen:            And so it was always going to be a struggle to actually get those people to get out of the way and ensure that disabled people take control of their own destinies.

Pam McNeil:                     And it’s so frustrating because of course people listening to this will think, hang on this isn’t new. And it’s not new. We’ve had exactly the same discussions when women were trying to get some power in the world. We’ve had the same sorts of issues and have continuing conversations here in Aotearoa New Zealand among Māori who would like that opportunity, too. To lead and manage their own sector and be in partnership. And that’s what we are asking for as well. We want a partnership with government and it’s completely unacceptable that we are not even being listened to.

Jonathan Mosen:            I don’t know what the equivalent is, but this is the disability equivalent of barefoot and pregnant, really.

Pam McNeil:                     Yes.

Jonathan Mosen:            Just keep us in our place. So why do you think that that it’s important that this rally take place given that the appointment has been made. We’re now in February, July is not too far away. Is it better just to focus on the next step, which will obviously be the appointment of a permanent chief executive?

Pam McNeil:                     I think we’ve got to make it very clear right now how incensed we are as a community that this has happened. There are some remedies that could perhaps be applied and we’ll discuss those at the rally and get some ideas from people, as well. But I think once the public see this commotion [inaudible 01:09:58] through the ministry when the establishment phase has completed. We need to be making it very, very clear that we will not accept anything, but a disabled person in that role and as key competencies and part of that skillset for all positions within a ministry for disabled people. We need to say that loudly and clearly. We need to, for example, send messages such as we’re not interested in family being substituted for disabled people. We get that a lot that people think that if their family members that means that they somehow know and understand the experience of being a disabled person. I don’t want to detract from the knowledge and experience those people have, but it isn’t the same.

                                           And we also want to make sure that the public service commission understand that we know that one of the ploys that is often used in this type of argument is, well, we’ll get someone who doesn’t really look disabled and possibly may not even have any lived experience of disability. Again, I don’t want to offend anybody, but come on people, we need to really go with this. This is about disabled people. We need to be loud and proud here. So don’t just try and hoodwink us with someone who doesn’t really appear disabled and put them in, set them up to fail and then say, oh gosh, that’s terrible. That didn’t work out because they weren’t really able to do it. I’ve seen these things happen before and we need to let them know that we’re ready for those things.

Jonathan Mosen:            Can there actually be any negative long-term consequences of a non-disabled person in this transition director role? And if so, what do you think they are?

Pam McNeil:                     Well, in terms of setting a culture for the organization and across the public service, yes, it’s a huge negative consequence. And also in terms of accessibility. One of the things the government have said, we’ve said as disabled people, is that we want to increase accessibility across the country throughout all areas of life. And if we want to do that, we’re going to have more show of doing it if we have a ministry that’s led and managed by disabled people. With the DNA of disability all through it at every level and including every impairment type.

Jonathan Mosen:            What’s going to happen at the protest rally and what’s the format of that?

Pam McNeil:                     We’re going to have a rally that brings together disabled people. So the rally attendance must be by disabled people. We really want to keep this as a safe space for disabled people to be able to talk. There will be a live stream for viewing only on Facebook and YouTube for part of the rally. Once we get into the more strategic side, we’ll probably close off that stream so that people do feel safe to talk. We’re so lucky to be able to have the facilitation services of Dr. Graeme Innes from Australia to support us in this and I know he’s going to do a fantastic job.

                                           We will have a couple of video presentations from people who are key to this project, but are not able to attend in person. And we’re looking to possibly have a panel discussion. We will have some sort of strategic discussion about next steps and we thought we might look at a panel discussion for that and get ideas from the floor. And then once the rally’s over, we will look at press releases and media interviews to get the message out about our next steps.

Jonathan Mosen:            Do you think this organization has a long-term future or will it simply disband once this work is done?

Pam McNeil:                     I suspect it will have a long-term future. It’s going to depend on what people think, of course, but from my perspective, I’d like to see it have a voice in areas such as the commercial sector, business sector, and of course the disability sector more widely. Particularly in the latter case, looking at leadership and management by disabled people in both the disability support services and disabled people’s organizations, but also all of the disability related work that government currently does. And I don’t think everything will hived off to the new ministry. So there’s still a lot more work to do, I think.

Jonathan Mosen:            We have an amazing team of leaders, not all of whom feel that they are able to have their names disclosed on the website or in public. Do you think that’s a bit of a commentary on the climate of fear that exists in New Zealand where it’s perceived that if you rock the boat, even if you politely but firmly express yourself politically, you may be putting yourself at risk.

Pam McNeil:                     Yes. I think it’s a real indictment in this day and age. If I go back to the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981, that was one of the key drivers of the move to form groups like Disabled Persons Assembly. But there was a lot of fear. People were really scared that if they joined DPA, they would lose services, they would somehow be punished by service providers. And for people in residential support services, that was and is a real threat. And it’s really unfortunate that we still have remnants of that old system hanging around today and those old fears. And they’re real.

Jonathan Mosen:            So if people want to find out more information, they can visit, and we’re particularly keen to get disabled New Zealanders signed up for that webinar. There’s a clear link there and they can attend the online protest rally. Those outside New Zealand who might be keen to observe and non-disabled allies are welcome to check in via Facebook and YouTube. You can like Disabled Leadership Now on Facebook and you can also follow-on Twitter. We’ll make sure we put all of that information in the show notes for the podcast.

                                           So I appreciate you coming on. I personally feel really motivated and proud of what we’ve built in actually quite a short time. So we look forward to the rally on Sunday, the 13th of February.

Pam McNeil:      Many thanks, Jonathan.

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