Disability community ‘losing hope’ over Govt’s lack of ‘transformational change’ — advocate

An advocate for people with disabilities says “many” in the community are “losing hope” in the Government, which they say has failed to deliver “transformational change” for them. 

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Dr Huhana Hickey says the Welfare Expert Advisory Group hoped for “transformational change”, but are still waiting. Source: Breakfast

Two weeks ahead of Budget 2021’s unveiling, lawyer Huhana Hickey (Ngāti Tahinga, Tainui) said the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the “struggle” some people with disabilities face.

She told Breakfast she had heard of a kuia who uses a wheelchair and lived off rice and noodles for three weeks. It was only when a family member had realised that was happening did she get help. 

“They won’t ask. If they do ask, they feel embarrassed.”

Five years ago, Hickey said she hardly saw people with disabilities begging on the streets. 

Now they’re becoming increasingly commonplace, especially as rents go up, she said.

Hickey was part of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group formed in 2018. It was tasked to advise the Government about the future of New Zealand's social security system and the changes that needed to be made to it. 

She said the group was needed because New Zealand’s welfare and benefits had been “eroding” over the past 30 years and hadn’t recovered since. 

“We felt hope going in … We thought what we had was a robust, well-reviewed, economically viable transformational system.”

The group produced 42 recommendations for the Government to consider in 2019. A recent stocktake by the Child Poverty Action Group, however, found only a handful of the recommendations had been implemented, and none fully.

“We hoped for transformational change,” Hickey said.

“We’re still waiting.”

More than half of the people of working age who are on the benefit have a disability or are helping care for someone with one. 

Hickey said many people with a disability wanted to work, but couldn’t always do so full time. 

Without targeted programmes, she said people with disabilities would continue to “stagnate”. 

She said the slow speed at which benefit reforms were coming also puzzled her, given housing, health, education and economics all interlink.

“What confuses me is they were quick to pick up on health reforms, and are very quick to bring in other reforms,” she said of the Government's recently-announced plan to reform the health sector by scrapping DHBs and creating a new Māori health authority. 

“We have nobody in Parliament with direct experience in there being a voice for our people. … We need to see disabled people at the table.”

Hickey said to the Prime Minister: “Please give us hope .. let us take charge.”

“Many of us are losing hope with the decisions being made these days.”

Jacinda Ardern, appearing on Breakfast after Hickey, said she wouldn’t pre-empt any Budget announcements. 

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The Prime Minister says there isn’t enough money to go around in the budget, however, to make changes all at once. Source: Breakfast

“There are a range of things within it that we have progressed, that we have completed, and some we continue to work on,” she said of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s recommendations. 

She said the Government was clear from its release that there was a lack of “capacity” in budgets to carry out changes “all at once”. 

Ardern pointed to the $25 increase in benefits for all in last year’s Budget as an example of “much-needed” change the Government had already undertaken. A University of Auckland sociologist said the increase is “too little to make a substantive difference”

Ardern said the Government had also started measuring the impact on households if a person with a disability lived in it. She said it would inform future policy work. 

“We know the work needs to be done. We will keep going. I know, though, that many are wanting to see that action now.”

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The Budget will be presented on May 20.