An interview with the Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero MNZM
The legal profession has been through a period of intense focus and discussion about diversity and inclusion. Whilst most conversations focus on gender and ethnicity, how often has disability been at the top of the diversity agenda?
Nearly a quarter of Aotearoa New Zealand’s population is made up of disabled people 24%. That means that every fourth person you meet might be disabled – but will you be meeting those people in your workplace as colleagues or clients? Probably not, unless your diversity strategy includes disabled people.
Disability Rights Commissioner, and former lawyer, Paula Tesoriero is used to having conversations about diversity but finds all too often that disability isn’t yet part of the kōrero.
“A number of organisations tell me that they’re focussing on gender first and then something else and then they’ll get to disability.
“But the truth is that if you’re not doing disability then you’re not doing diversity.
“If we want a truly representative legal profession and judiciary then it will be really important to think about how the profession takes deliberate steps to ensure there are disabled people in the profession and on the bench.”
Paula has direct experience of what it’s like working in the legal profession as a disabled person.
“I wanted to be a lawyer for as long as I can remember.
“It was about this idea of advocacy and wanting to ensure there was a voice for people who didn’t have one. My own experience may have influenced that, spending time in hospital as a child. I came away with a sense of wanting to make sure the many disabled young people I saw around me had a fair go.
“I really enjoyed my time at Law School. The nature of my impairment is such that I didn’t particularly need accommodations during my time there. I had a lot of friends and found it a rewarding experience.”
After graduating Paula joined one of the big firms, spending time in different areas before going on secondment to the Ministry of Justice.
“The idea was to do that time in a public sector role and return to private practice, but I found that I really loved my time at Justice. It was a such a wide variety of legal, policy and justice related issues and I held quite a senior role supporting the operation of the Courts. After Justice I moved on to Statistics New Zealand before taking up the role of Commissioner.”
Paula also held a number of governance roles in the sport and disability sector and was a paralympic cyclist.
Disabling barriers to enable participation
Shifting the way we all think about disability is a key part of enabling more disabled people to join the legal profession.
“Traditionally the way we think about disability places the burden to adapt on the disabled person. However what’s known as the social model of disability recognises that a person is not disabled by their impairment – they’re disabled by the environment around them as that places barriers in the way to full participation. Once you can start to think like that you realise that we all have a collective responsibility to remove the barriers to participation.
“Whether you’re an employer or working with a disabled client, ask about disability. Ask if there are ways that the person sitting in front of you needs support to exercise their legal rights, or to fulfil their potential in the workplace.
“Especially as an employer, don’t assume that everyone needs the same thing. Employers make accommodations every day for a huge range of reasons so it shouldn’t be different for disabled people.
“I have a lot of disabled people tell me about the flexibility that was afforded to them during the COVID-19 lockdowns when everyone else was restricted from travelling to the office. Let’s make sure we hang on to those ways of working and don’t go back to what for some was an impossible barrrier to work.
“Challenge yourself to be flexible, be mindful of what your staff need to be succesful and with a change in those kinds of mindsets I’m confident that we will bring about change. And we have to bring about change.”
In talking about the concept of ableism Paula’s passion for advocacy shines through. Her genuine desire to shift the conversation, to shift the way we think about disability is what she is striving for in her role.
“I want people to talk about ableism which in effect is discrimination or because the world was not created with disabled people in mind, the world we live in is inherently abelist.
“For legal workplaces it’s thinking about the culture, the way in which you recruit. For example, are you working with recruitment agencies to deliberately find the vast amounts of talent there are in the disabled community?
“Because disabled people are talented – we’re awesome problem solvers! There’s a lot of evidence that disabled people are more loyal, take less sick leave and make fewer ACC claims.
“I also think that given 24% of the population is disabled then if you are a really progressive firm you would want to consider if the way you do your work and services responds to the needs of that 24%. There is no better way to design things and understand things for disabled people than having disabled people in your organisation.”
Supporting people with disabilities in the justice system
“I think the whole justice system could be far more responsive to the needs of disabled people.”
To illustrate her point Paula turns to a quote from Chief Science Advisor for the Justice Sector, Dr Ian Lambie:
“If either a victim, witness or offender cannot concentrate, process information, hear or grasp basic concepts let alone deal with stressful questioning or court proceedings, we have to wonder, is fair – and smart – justice being delivered?”
Paula says that question is pertinant – and the feedback she gets from disabled people and their whānau going through the justice system is that it is not a fair or a smart process for them. And that really concerns her given the disproportionate number of disabled people in the criminal justice system.
“We should be really looking to understand the drivers of people entering the system and focusing much more on early intervention. If we think about the way the system works it's about words and engaging with people, but if you don’t understand the words or you have poor impulse control and other things that impact on your understanding then you’re disadvantaged at every level.”
One thing that Paula has been told by some members of the judiciary is more lawyers could be using international legislation to strengthen their arguments when dealing with disability related cases.
“It’s really important that lawyers are using everything they have to best support disability rights arguments. Raising international conventions such as the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, means those rights can be considered by judges.
“I don’t know why this is the case – it might be a lack of awareness so perhaps more training or education is required in this area.”
Increasing diversity through doing disability
Returning to the start of our conversation Paula reiterates the onus there is on all of us to enable disabled people to thrive in the legal profession.
“If we want the legal profession at all levels to look and be like New Zealand then we’ve got to have disabled people there.
“If legal workplaces genuinely want to be diverse organisations then they need to be deliberate about getting there.
“We can’t keep having conversations about being a socially inclusive nation if disability isn’t part of the kōrero. I like to think we are all doing our part to nudge that along – but it’s going to take all of us to be prepared to have challenging conversations to be the progressive country we can be.”
Facts & Figures
- Around one in four New Zealanders experiences a physical, sensory, learning, mental health, or other impairment (about 1 million of us), and about 35 percent of disabled people are over 65 (around 370,000 of us).
- Disabled people are more likely to have lower incomes than non-disabled people.
- 34 percent of disabled women have no educational qualifications compared to 15 percent of non-disabled women.
- Disabled adults experience violence and abuse at about 1.5 to 2x higher than non-disabled people.
- Disabled children experience violence and abuse 3.7x more.
- Disabled people report feeling lonely most/all of the time at around four times the rate of non-disabled people (just over 11 percent for disabled and just under 3 percent for non-disabled).