'We are silent' - politics littered with challenges for deaf/hard of hearing, new Bill aimed at breaking down barriers passes first hurdle

Navigating the political sphere is fraught with challenges for some people with disabilities.

Now, new measures in parliament are attempting to help break down some of the barriers individuals face when trying to engage with politics, keep up with the latest developments and gain their own space in the conversation. 

Today Green MP Chloe Swarbrick's Election Access Fund Bill, handed down by former MP Mojo Mathers, was introduced into parliament, aiming to establish funding for political candidates with disabilities which would go to covering "disability-related costs of standing in a general election, by not-for-profit bodies to cover costs of making election education events and materials accessible, and by registered political parties to support access needs of any members to allow them to participate within the party". 

"This is a pretty succinct piece of legislation, but it has the power to be transformative," Ms Swarbrick said. 

It passed its first reading, voted with unanimous support across parliament. 

Last week, parliament gave sign language a place next to the Prime Minister, ensuring an interpreter would be present at official announcements and during question time. 

The new move which will give deaf people access to what the PM is saying started this week. Source: Seven Sharp

Interpreter Alan Wendt now has a permanent position in Jacinda Ardern's post-Cabinet press conferences.

Chairperson Kim Robinson spoke to 1 NEWS using an interpreter about the limitations some people face. Source: 1 NEWS

Chairperson of Deaf Action NZ Kim Robinson told 1 NEWS people who are deaf/hard of hearing have missed out on a lot in the political sphere, and wants access to extend to other political areas. 

"The barriers we face is a lack of access to information. We want to be able to have it at the right time, not delayed, so we can make the right decision and feel confident in our voting decision.

"We want to know we've got the full facts like everyone else, before we make that all important tick in the box. We don't want to be wondering if we've got half the story. Information has to be timely, otherwise you might as well tick the box with your eyes closed, because you've got no clue who the heck you're voting for."

When asked what issues the deaf/hard of hearing community have had with political announcements, Mr Robinson said: "Every time a Minister, Member of Parliament or a Government official makes a 'public' announcement, deaf viewers tend to only get none or part of the information if it's not NZSL interpreted. Captioning in English isn't a replacement substitute to an official language that's unique to over 20,000 users. By the time the full message gets to a deaf person, the topic tends to 'finished' or 'decided' before any opinion that also impacts a Deaf person is given."

"Often only part of the information makes it to the news and we become reliant on people’s interpretations of the announcement rather than being able to make our own judgment based on the information directly given by the speakers. This can fuel the risk of second hand information or an opinion of one person who relayed the information which can influence an outcome. By having access to real time NZSL interpreters, deaf can be fully inclusive with up to date information.

"Traditionally this lack of access meant that we were unable to be informed fully which impacted our ability to make good decisions on election day."

He said it also meant the lack of access impinged on the way deaf/hard of hearing people could raise their concerns during election time, "which means the government of the day are not acting in our interest".

"We are silent."

Mr Robinson previously ran in a DHB election. He was challenged with having to get a NZSL interpreter from Wellington, for meetings in the South Island. 

"Several times I was left without an interpreter. I had to struggle and be dependent on people to write down what is being said. Candidates with disabilities also share similar struggles in terms of accessible venues which tend to be upstairs with no lifts." 

"New Zealand elections must be fully accessible to all voters.  A number of deaf/hard of hearing people do not vote because we miss the information being shared."

Deaf Action NZ secretary Rachel Noble said she had to personally cover an interpreter for a local election. 

"The other deaf person present and I were astounded to see how much we learnt by following the interpreter. We learnt about the candidates personal back stories, we observed their body language, speaking styles and so much more than what we would have seen on their flyers and in news articles.

"I changed my mind on who I was prepared to vote for as result of this access," Ms Noble said. 

Chloe Swarbrick's Bill

The Election Funding Bill states its purpose is to "establish a fund designed to remove or reduce barriers to standing as a candidate in a general election or otherwise participating in a general election faced by individuals as a consequence of their disability and which non-disabled individuals do not face".

When asked if Chloe Swarbrick's Bill extended far enough, Mr Robinson said it focuses on general elections, covering the broader disability sector.

"Navigating through the process with access to venues, information, etc is double the work of a candidate without a disability. This bill will reduce the 'navigating' required and make it more attractive to stand as a candidate."

However, Deaf Action NZ are advocating to further access to local body election and political party/advocacy participation in the community, and to include Te Reo Maori interpreters. 

"The government has a duty, to make sure that here, especially around electoral times, there is absolute access for everyone. It gives the individual or the party freedom to be able to lobby, or to focus on what they're there for, to get votes or represent." 

"There's all these policies and rules, people making these decisions in different areas, but there's no access. How can we improve the access for everyone so we can all have an equal say?"

Barrier-free election 2020

Mr Robinson said funding to provide people with the means to learn sign language and to learn how to be an interpreter is needed, but the attempt to make the political process fully accessible feels like "an ongoing battle". 

For the 2020 election, Mr Robinson says interpreters should be at candidate gatherings, political and candidate messages in NZSL, NZSL interpreters in electoral debates and there should be opportunity to discuss with candidates/parties deaf specific issues.

The MPs battle out the biggest topics of the week. Source: 1 NEWS