Jonathan Mosen: Waitangi Day reflections on struggle, hope and determination for the disability community

For me, Waitangi Day has always been a day of celebration and reflection. I often crank up some of my favourite Kiwi bands, sing along and reflect how proud I am to be here.


It’s possible to be grateful for what you have while also knowing our future can be even brighter and fairer. I am a member of Aotearoa New Zealand’s largest minority, disabled people. Since the age of 16, I have played an active role in advancing our self-determination, particularly in the blind community. Often, advocacy feels like constantly banging your head against a brick wall. But gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, the wall moves just a fraction.


When it feels like progress is too slow, the struggles and progress of Māori, women, the LGBTQ community, and others give me hope. Their struggles are ongoing, but their progress is significant, much more significant than the progress disabled people have made towards truly controlling our own destinies and maximising our potential.


RNZ aired a story this morning in which two people who were derided by many 50 years ago as “bloody Māori radicals” discussed their struggles and their progress. Their tireless advocacy helped revive te reo Māori, which was in danger of dying out, and challenged all of us to think about what it means to honour Te Tiriti.


There is much left to do of course, but many of us now cherish the Māori language, kohanga reo are thriving, and on the same network earlier that morning, Media watch aired a story on efforts being made to promote Māori journalists mindful that Māori issues have been systemically underreported or reported through a Pakeha lens. So, there is a lot that those Ngā Tamatoa can be proud of.


To put the issue of the nondisabled Transition Director in context, it’s important to reflect that we in the disability movement have had our own struggles. Some of us suffered physical, verbal, psychological and even sexual abuse at the hands of those charged with our care and safety. It was only last year, thanks to the Royal Commission on Abuse in Care, that I finally had my chance to tell my story in full, to be believed, to not be judged, to be recognised as a survivor, and to feel like I might be on track to get the only thing I have ever wanted with regard to that issue, an apology for what happened to me.


A day seldom goes by when RNZ, the network so proud of its progress with Te Reo Māori, doesn’t use ableist slurs in its news stories. Unlike many other public broadcasters that recognise their responsibility to disabled people, RNZ has no disabled person there to call them out. The word “blind” is frequently used as a synonym for “ignorance”. If a politician hasn’t been responsive enough, a plea has “fallen on Deaf ears”. House prices are “crippling”. Believe me, I could go on, the ableism is rampant and repugnant. Try to point this out to the broadcaster, and you’ll get a nondisabled person pulling out their Oxford dictionary and claiming it’s OK. Thankfully they don’t use that logic for racist or sexist slurs.


Too often, disabled people have so much to give, want to feel that we are valued and that we matter, but successive governments have such low expectations of us that they have not adequately invested in our capacity and capability.


While I have always struggled with the phrase as a blind person, I understand the concept of “you can’t be it if you can’t see it”. In 2022, few organisations providing services to us are led by us. Last year alone, two prominent organisations in our sector replaced their chief executives. There were high hopes from the disabled community that both would appoint a disabled person to the role. Neither did.


Have we made any progress? Oh yes, without doubt. That progress has been made when disabled people have been bold and taken on the system. Progress has been made when we not only oppose, but also propose. We must be clear about what it is we want and how we will advance our journey.


I believe New Zealand’s disability community, and indeed the disability community globally, has a culture forged out of our collective struggle. It’s a struggle born of the unshakable belief that we are valuable, we matter, we have so much to give. It’s a struggle born of taking on those who might look down on us because we may do things in alternative ways. It’s a culture born out of the frustrations and tiring efforts of advocacy, and the thrill of chalking up some wins along the way.


All these things, this strong culture of disability, need to be at the very foundation of the Ministry for Disabled People we have fought so hard for over many decades. Those foundations are being constructed right now, under the leadership of a nondisabled person, despite disabled people with senior leadership experience applying. Let’s be clear, this is also a form of abuse. The New Zealand public service, particularly in recent years, has been appalling in its lack of appointment of disabled people to senior leadership roles. Even the office for Disability Issues is not led by a disabled person.


While I have written with empathy and admiration in this article about the struggles and progress Māori have made, I am an observer of their struggles and victories. I am a supporter, I am an ally, but I am not Māori. If I were to claim I fully understood their journey, that would be a presumptuous overreach. I seek the same understanding from Government of my culture as a disabled person.


For a nondisabled person, no matter how empathetic, to have been appointed to this role is flagrant cultural insensitivity on the part of the New Zealand Government. It must not be allowed to stand. We have come too far as a disabled community, and we have so much further to go.


I hope you will join us next Sunday at our online protest rally as we discuss next steps. The battle for this Ministry has been too long fought for us to see this opportunity squandered at the eleventh hour. I hope you will agree it is worth a couple of hours of your time.


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