Opinion pieces

This is your House too

January 29, 2022

Henrietta Bollinger
Henrietta Bollinger
Drawing of a diverse group outside the beehive

I entered Parliament just months before Chloe Swarbrick was born, says Ruth Dyson. There is a murmur of acknowledgment from her fellow Members of Parliament. To me, watching her valedictory speech, this means she has had a Parliamentary career spanning most of my life as well.

We had crossed over in a Parliament café when I was working on the Election Access Fund Bill. The Bill aimed to establish a Fund to meet Deaf and Disabled candidate’s disability-related costs of standing for a General Election. During our brief exchange, we discussed this work and the Select Committee Report on Parliamentary Accessibility – initiated by Mojo Mathers and chaired by Dyson herself – it provided recommendations on making it easier for our community to access Parliament – everything from increased numbers of mobility carparks to Parliamentary process.

We still have so much to do, she told me.

This was not an insignificant admission. For me, a disability rights advocate navigating work in Parliament for the first time. It was a generous thing to say and important to hear. Alongside other support, I received from Mojo Mathers, Chloe Swarbrick, and from the team, I was working with, it acknowledged the work I was doing as part of a wider context. It acknowledged that our community deserved more change and faster. It was validating.

Weeks ago, I watched her valedictory speech as she detailed her 26 years in Parliament. I was first struck by the many instances in which she had stood alongside Deaf and Disabled people – formalising our communities’ presence in Parliamentary politics. Most obviously through the establishment of the Minister for Disability Issues – a portfolio now ubiquitous across the House. Her speech impressed me for the sheer number of significant barriers to our inclusion she had been part of challenging alongside our community leaders.

There is often a professed will from non-disabled leaders to help disabled people achieve their full human rights. I know a lot of this is genuine. I have seen evidence of it. But much of it comes after we as disabled people have done the work of explaining just how far from being equal citizens we really are – after we have comforted the non-disabled world in its immediate shock and indignation about this. Even then, we are asked to be patient – to wait, to understand that our full inclusion is impractical, expensive, or asks non-disabled people to compromise too much. She seemed to understand this.

The Election Access Fund Bill passed unanimously in April this year, and I found myself crying at this particular path to leadership becoming slightly easier to traverse. A Bill that acknowledged our ability to be active citizens. I firmly believe this legislation will be a significant part of making more disabled representation possible for us at the highest levels.

However, the Bill will only take effect in time for the 2023 election. Therefore, we are looking at a probable election this year, where the disabled community has not benefited from its enabling support.

While acknowledging those who are running openly anyway – notably Green candidate Golriz Gharaman and Act’s David Seymour in Whangarei – the dearth of disabled candidates – or those who feel safe to identify as such in the adversarial and unforgiving environment – leaves us without the critical mass to avoid simply being spoken for. The disabled people named here or their forebears like Mojo Mathers or, earlier still, JB Munro are still exceptions to the rule. In general, disabled people’s representation is scant, and, critically, all Ministers for Disability Issues have been non-disabled.

On the whole, this means being absent from political debate. As disabled people, we usually find our way into the discourse through a side door – as a ‘vulnerable population’ ‘a cost’ as and as an exception – that one disabled person an MP knows personally who proves their argument while lending it a human face. Our position as mostly a rhetorical device feels acutely painful in light of the particular decisions that voters are being asked to make this October.

Cannabis Reform and End of Life Choice are both proposed law changes that will profoundly impact disabled people’s lives and sense of well-being. The urgency of debate in the disabled community proves the gravity of these issues for us.

However, the House’s debate has mostly hinged on conjecturing what our lives must be like, how these issues might affect us. Meanwhile, many of us encounter access barriers to even witnessing it. Getting multiple wheelchairs into the gallery proves a challenge. There has been an uphill battle to getting NZSL interpretation of all political debate. We insist on maintaining the status of politics by having these debates in often technical and inaccessible language. During these debates, I find myself hungry for more for open, proud, and brave ownership of political power in the same way as we have seen in the Youthquake of the local body elections or the or our answer to the movements in America which have seen women of colour be elected to the Senate.

There was a second thing that struck me in the first Minister for Disability Issues exit from Parliament. News reports lauded the politician for not taking a single sick day in her 9768 days as a Member of Parliament. She had achieved significant change for our community by being in a role which, in its current form, maybe untenable for many of us by being non-disabled.

I am not suggesting that we bow out here. I am not suggesting we fold into the pervasive and paternalistic belief that leadership is not possible for us. Getting prominent disabled leaders elected is not the panacea. We still have barriers to political voice as voters, as participants in social movements, and as private citizens asserting our rights. All of this must change. I believe change must also come in the form of disabled Minister for Disability Issues: nothing about us, without us.

I am suggesting we question ableist leadership. The leadership model that Parliament makes space for is highly individualised and highly pressured. It runs contrary to the values of the Disability Rights movement, which is inherently collective. In particular, our conception of independence – which understands independence as being self-determined and our understanding of limitations on energy.

Disabled people are used to understanding our lives and achievements in relation to other people. We can hold the contributions of others without this sullying the value of our own work. Sir Robert Martin understands this when he acknowledges the Meeting Assistants he works with at the United Nations. On a smaller scale, every morning I was working at Parliament, a support worker would button my impossible shirts so I could meet the formal dress code.

I wonder what Parliament might look like if this kind of independence was an expected and valued form of leadership. I wonder what it would look if we expected our leaders to articulate all the support they had had to navigate their way into power: if we demanded it was made visible.

In her opening speech of the first debate on the Election Access Fund Bill Chloe Swarbrick addressed our community: Nō kotou anō tēnei whare. This is your House too if we are to claim it in a serious way, the environment as much as the people in it must look like us.