A highly-regarded blind Canadian lawyer says New Zealand needs a new disability access law to tackle the lack of access for the estimated one million people with a disability.
David Lepofsky was invited by the Blind Foundation to visit New Zealand to share his experiences and expertise on developing accessibility legislation and standards in Canada.
The Blind Foundation is one of 12 disability groups that form the Access Alliance lobbying Paraliament to enact an Accessibility Act which would provide accessibility in all areas of life and champion accessible workplaces, employment and education.
David Lepofsky was awarded the Order of Ontario in 2007 for his work with people with disabilities which lead to the establishment of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2001 and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2005.
Mr Lepofsky was awarded the Order of Ontario in 2007 for his work with people with disabilities which led to the establishment of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2001 and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2005.
During his time in New Zealand at the end of last year, Mr Lepofsky spoke to a number of politicians and advocates including the Minister for Disability Issues, Carmel Sepuloni, assistant Speaker of the House (and former disability worker) Poto Williams, councillors, disability advocates and city planners.
And he picked up a feeling that things are changing, and quickly.
“What I’ve sensed is a similar excitment to the campaign and optimism in Canada. There’s a government in power that made accessibility commitments during the 2017 election, and there’s a sense of opportunity.
“In most communities it isn’t just about the built environment, it’s also about the digital environment where we can face barriers, in the workplace and all sorts of places. But obviously the built environment is a crucial place. So, when disabled people visit somewhere the structures are already there.
“Christchurch is in a unique situation, because of the terrible earthquakes in 2011. They’re rebuilding massively and the leadership of the disability community has said ‘if you’re rebuilding, get it right’. That doesn’t always happen so that’s where a strong disability access law can be used to ensure that is done correctly.”
The need for new legislation
He says it’s hugely important that New Zealand has an Accesibility Act.
“Firstly, one in four New Zealanders have an impairment, whether a physical or mental disability, and everyone else will have an impairment at some point in their lives, so these accessibility issues will affect most New Zealanders.
“Secondly, better accessibilty is great for business. This is a beautiful country that thrives on a vibrant tourism industry. Well, there’s upward of a billion people with disabilities around the world and they want to visit places that are accessible.
“I stayed in four different hotels in four different parts of New Zealand, and not one of them had the simplest requirement of braille numbers on the hotel room doors or the elevator buttons. That’s pretty basic stuff. Now, who would stay in a hotel if they can’t operate the elevator or find their own hotel room?
“Some people think that when you talk about accessibility that it’s really expensive to carry out upgrades but it’s actually not that costly, and it’s definitely worth it. Otherwise you lose out on tourist business.
“And the final thing is New Zealand needs more professionals to do accessibility infrastructure – designers, urban planners, software designers, website designers and so on. There’s a huge value in the government funding the training of new professionals in planning, built environment design and digital design in accessibility. Not only would they serve the New Zealand market but they can then sell their services internationally; if a company or organisation anywhere in the world wants someone to design their website to meet the growing international standards then there’s people here who can design it for them. They don’t need to travel to that country to do it, they can do it online.”
During his time in the country, Mr Lepofsy noted several areas where we fail disabled people in comparison to other jurisdictions.
“The United States is way ahead of most countries, both in terms of the strength of its legislation and its enforcement. There’s some strong things in Israel’s legislation – I was there recently and stayed in a couple of hotels and both had braille in the elevators, and they’ve got a voice to tell you which floor you are on.
“New Zealand is in a position to catch up those countries by looking at who’s doing it right, and learn from it all. One thing New Zealand is doing right is it has more of those beeping pedestrian signals than in Canada. They’re not everywhere but they’re on a lot of streets and street corners.”
Overcoming the odds
Mr Lepofsky was partially sighted until the age of 20 when he lost all his sight. However, he qualified as a lawyer and for 33 years was Crown counsel for the Government of Ontario.
He retired in 2015 and has since become a part-time law professor at the University of Toronto and the Osgoode Hall Law School. He is the co-chair of Barrier-Free Canada, a community coalition that has advocated for the Canadians with Disabilities Act. He was awarded the order of Canada in 1995 and the Order of Ontario in 2007.
Mr Lepofsky says it is not unusual for a sight-impaired lawyer to be succesful and there shouldn’t be any barriers to someone becoming admitted and being able to practise.
“There are a lot of blind lawyers around the world; in the United States there are two separate organisations for blind lawyers. The route to gaining experience and skills have become incredibly easier. When I was in law school, which was 40 years ago, I used to have to get books recorded on to audio cassette and have human beings read stuff to me. We used typewriters but I couldn’t proofread what I was writing.
“Forty years on we have computers and iPhones that talk, and we have document scanners. If I was given a document in the courtroom I can take a picture of it on my phone and 30 seconds later the phone is reading it to me. And, of course, we have access online to electronic text and legislation.
“The capacity to operate in an environment of law where it’s all about documents and written materials is now immensely easier. I’ve seen this transformed in my lifetime.”
Dianne Rogers, the coordinator of the Access Alliance, says there will be changes as the Government is committed to making them.
“The Minister (Carmel Sepuloni) has raised this at Cabinet level; all three parties in the coalition government are committed to doing something. We were successful last year during the pre-election period to getting this idea in the party manifestos.”
She says 1.1 million people – about a quarter of the New Zealand population – have impairments, a number that will significantly rise over the next few decades with an ageing population. And New Zealand needs to wake up to the fact it is way behind other OECD nations in how it provides access for disabled people.
“We are 30 years behind the rest of the world. We have had really poor regulations and it’s been left to the goodwill of organisations to do something for disabled people, ie, removing barriers, transport improvements, easy to access websites and so on.”
She says the proposed legislation will “scale up and fill the gaps” in existing statutes on disabilities.
“The Human Rights Act is weak in terms of achieving systemic change based on complaints. Its disputes resolution mandate deals with claims individually through mediation and outcomes are usually confidential. This new legislation that the 12 member organisations in the Access Alliance – and their supporters – are proposing will be a game-changer.”
In December, a first step was taken to improving accessibility when Cabinet approved a work programme to explore how full accessibility for disabled people can be achieved.
The work programme will also focus on improving accessibility for other groups such as seniors, carers of young children, people with English as a second language, and those with temporary injuries.
For more information on the campaign for an Accessibilty Act visit accessalliance.org.nz