Amicus Curiae: Accessibility Legislation Would Be a ‘Win-Win’ For Everybody

BY CLAUDIA RUSSELL

Accessibility legislation could be a ‘win-win’ for employers and people with disabilities.

A recent national poll has revealed mass support for accessibility legislation. 80% of respondents said they support the introduction of minimum standards for disability access. Shockingly, New Zealand currently has no formal standards for building and transport accessibility. In conversation with Radio New Zealand, spokesperson Amy Hogan states that it is “completely pot luck” whether or not a place of work is accessible. This makes job hunting incredibly difficult for people with disabilities. “Rather than feeling like a professional, you feel like a problem,” says Amy, a wheelchair user herself. In fact, half of our disabled population are unemployed. What might be a small obstacle to an able-bodied person can, for others, be the difference between employment and unemployment. With the wealth of technology available in New Zealand, it shouldn’t be this way.

An Accessibility Act could be as simple as setting minimum standards for access to buildings and transport. It may also require major businesses to make their websites accessible for customers. Most employers actually support the idea, as it would bring in more customers and a wider pool of potential employees. They simply lack guidance as to how they can become accessible. This is where a set of detailed standards would help. It could be crafted with the input of business-owners to make sure the standards are achievable, and applied nationally. Advocacy group Access Alliance already has a legislative framework set out on their website. Some key points are:

The Act applies to all government departments, crown corporations, companies, organisations and any other entity that is regulated by statute. It will apply also to key corporately owned organisations operating in New Zealand.

  • The Act sets a timeline of goals to be met from the date the legislation is enacted.
  • It builds on existing disability and human rights acts, regulations and policies, ensuring that no existing rights are extinguished.
  • The Act would be enforceable by law. It will provide avenues for people who encounter obstacles which are in violation of the act to make formal complaints.

The proposed legislation does not need to be any more onerous than health and safety laws for employers. As a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we are technically obliged to provide nationwide accessibility. The longer New Zealand continues without a framework, the more we limit the potential of our people.

Accessibility affects this country more than one tends to realise. Nearly a quarter of New Zealanders identify as disabled, a total of 1.1 million. This figure aside, consider the sheer number of us who are likely to lose our ability to walk, see or hear effectively as we age. Even the young and fit are prone to temporary disability such as broken bones and sprains. Thus as lawyer and disability rights advocate David Lepofsky explains that “the barriers that hurt individuals with disabilities… hurt everybody and fixing those barriers helps everybody.” If you’re going to a restaurant with your friend who is wheelchair-bound, you’re not going to leave the friend outside once you find out it isn’t wheelchair accessible. Instead, you go to another restaurant. That business has just lost two customers. “Good accessibility standards should be a money-maker for businesses,” he states. The result, it seems, would be win-win.

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