Making Disability Rights Real in a Pandemic

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Executive Summary

The COVID-19 emergency and the new Alert Level system required people to change their everyday lives suddenly to prevent the spread of COVID-19. New Zealanders had to physically distance; confine themselves to their homes, sometimes for weeks on end; and radically change the way they worked and learned. While disabled people voiced some positive experiences of the COVID-19 emergency, the restrictions exposed, and exacerbated, some existing inequities in disabled people’s enjoyment of human rights.[i]

Making Disability Rights Real in a Pandemic Te Whakatinana i ngā Tika Hauātanga i te wā o te Urutā directly reflects disabled New Zealanders’ experiences of the COVID-19 emergency and details areas where the Government did well and where improvements are needed. Based on all the information analysed, the IMM considers there are seven key areas where urgent attention is required.

1. Access to essential goods, services, and spaces

Disabled people have the right to access essential goods, services, and spaces on an equitable basis. Access during the COVID-19 emergency was variable for disabled people. Access to food, transport, habilitation services, housing, and public spaces were identified as key areas for improvement.

2. Decision making, participation and data

Articles 4(3) and 33(3) of the Disability Convention affirm disabled people’s right to participate in decision making processes. Despite decision making groups that some disabled people and DPOs participated in, disabled people felt this was primarily of a consultative nature, often an afterthought, and they were not always remunerated for their contributions. Further, disability data collection is important for monitoring the situations of disabled people in times of humanitarian emergencies, but this was not routinely part of COVID-19 impact research and monitoring.

3. Access to information and communications

The Government has obligations under Article 21 of the Disability Convention to ensure disabled people can seek, receive, and share information and communicate in ways that are accessible to them. The COVID-19 emergency highlighted four key areas: access to digital information and communications; accessible information formats; relevance and consistency of information and communications; and facilitation of communication. A key finding within these areas was that disabled people often experienced delays receiving accessible information and communications.

4. Education

Article 24 of the Disability Convention affirms disabled people’s right to access to equitable, inclusive, and quality education. The COVID-19 emergency and associated changes to education during Alert Levels 3 and 4 highlighted inequitable access and quality of education experienced by disabled people.

5. Health

Disabled people have the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health. During the COVID-19 emergency, disabled people reported health and wellbeing experiences less favourable than those of the general population. COVID-19 created some novel health challenges, including access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing. The COVID-19 emergency also exacerbated some existing inequalities for disabled people, such as mental health outcomes and access to health services.

6. Work and employment

Equal employment opportunities and conditions are important to disabled people. Changes to working environments brought about by the COVID-19 emergency created opportunities for some disabled people by improving workplace flexibility. On the other hand, it exacerbated some of the existing employment-related inequalities that disabled people are faced with on a day-to-day basis, including underrepresentation in the workforce.

7. Access to justice, and disabled people in places of detention

Article 14(2) of the Disability Convention states that disabled people who are deprived of their liberty should be treated on an equal basis with others. During the COVID-19 emergency, disabled people in places of detention encountered barriers, particularly around access to information, communications, and essential services. Article 13(2) also affirms disabled people’s right to access justice on an equitable basis with others. The COVID-19 emergency and associated Alert Levels affected some disabled people’s access to justice and legal services.

Overall observations - the equal citizenship of disabled people

Fundamentally, equality requires the recognition of disabled people’s right to equal citizenship with others. Citizenship includes every aspect of a person’s life. Reducing the barriers that disabled people face can have a profound impact of their sense of citizenship.

The human rights model of disability recognises disability as a social construct and one of several layers of identity. This model also recognises that human rights are interdependent, interrelated, and indivisible.[ii] The WHO has recognised that factors such as employment status, housing and education can have direct and indirect impacts on health.[iii] This concept, ‘the social determinants of health’, is just one example that signposts the interdependence of the themes in this report. Employment status is a determinant of income status, and inadequate housing conditions can be a direct cause of poor health.

Conversely, reducing digital barriers could enable a disabled person to access information about transport that, in turn, could enable use of public transport. Having more transport options could enable a disabled person to independently do their shopping or more easily participate in the labour market. Reducing barriers in one area can enable disabled people’s contribution in other areas of society. One of the IMM’s key findings in this report is that disabled people who experienced improved access in one area also reported increases in participation, wellbeing, and sense of belonging.

Article 3 of the Disability Convention affirms disabled people’s inherent dignity, and right to be treated as equal citizens in all aspects of their lives. Progress in fully recognising disabled people’s rights will remain stagnant without extensive recognition of disabled people as equal citizens, along with the acknowledgement that the rights affirmed in the Disability Convention are inherently interconnected. Disabled people’s experiences of the COVID-19 emergency demonstrate that true equal citizenship requires genuine implementation of all Articles of the Disability Convention.


[i] See further information about inequality statistics for disabled people: https://www.stats.govt.nz/infographics/the-disability-gap-2018 and https://www.stats.govt.nz/information-releases/disability-survey-2013, accessed November 2020.

[ii] United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, General comment No. 6 (2018) on equality and non-discrimination. See https://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/crpd/pages/gc.aspx , accessed November 2020.

[iii] World Health Organization, Rio Political Declaration on Social Determinants of Health. See https://www.who.int/sdhconference/declaration/Rio_political_declaration.pdf?ua=1, accessed November 2020.

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