Disabled face discrimination, hardship

Last updated 13:49 11/06/2014
down syndrome / windchime

SAY HELLO: Stephen de Jonge writes that the good in society embraces people with special needs, such as this man with Down syndrome.

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I'm the parent of an intellectually disabled teenager, and my partner works in the disability community. Her eyes are wide open. Mine are still half shut. Slowly I am becoming more aware, as the years roll on for this lifetime commitment.

We have conflicting views of society's treatment of the disabled, but we do agree that there is good. But in her opinion there is more that's ugly.

The good in New Zealand society embraces the special needs community - and I use the word community for a reason. We are the silent community hidden within yours. Not by choice but by preservation. While there are always exceptions, people that do know us usually embrace us, often in ways that have immense value to us. That friendly smile, stopping for a few seconds in your busy day to simply say hello. Acceptance. Not only because of the way we look, but simply as being a part of a civilized society. A sense of belonging. The most basic human thing.

The greatest gift you can give us is time. When we are doing every day mundane things like shopping, that is an achievement for us. For you, an everyday occurrence. One of my proudest moments was when my daughter entered a bakery and successfully chose a loaf of bread by herself. For her, something that she liked. For me, a milestone. It took her 15 years but she finally achieved it.

The bad in New Zealand society starts with discrimination. That bus driver who says the bus is full, refusing entry simply because it means leaving his seat and putting the wheelchair ramp down. Even though their personal carer can clearly see the vacant wide space, specifically reserved for the disabled. Lots of planning thrown out the window with our carers supporting us, trying to enable us to lead a life where independence is a gift, something to be cherished by all.

That uncomfortable situation when a person is afraid to engage us, simply because we are disabled.

The abuse by areas of society that prey on us. Sexually, emotionally and often physically. Targeted, simply because we are powerless to fight back, or cannot verbalise who hurt us.

The downright ugly is in all areas of society, starting at the top. WINZ still to this day has the classification of "mental retardation" in their system to describe the intellectually disabled. Retard - a word no longer acceptable in society but allowable by our own leaders. Slang for stupid or idiotic. A word of hate used to describe my child by a complete stranger passing our gate when she was 8. He, not much older.

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The police who question my child after being assaulted whilst in care, not in a way she can understand, which is her human right. The total lack of interest shown clearly by them, because she has no voice of her own.

People pass us and think to themselves "I am glad I'm not like that," failing to comprehend the most simplest of truths. Every single person born is in the lottery to win a disability. It has no social boundaries, it discriminates evenly and across all barriers. Its causes are sneaky and devious - some at birth, others by way of stroke, accidental drowning, falling off a roof, illness or medical misadventure. All people we have been privileged to meet. None willingly asking for it. We accept it. Some take much longer than others, but in the end we do what all humans have done throughout history. We try to rebuild what we have lost.

I feel privileged my child is a New Zealander, born in a socialist country where we look after the most vulnerable in our society. But at times equally ashamed at the way the special needs community still has to fight for fairness, equal protection and recognition under the law.

One country, one law is the official policy, so would it surprise you to know there are actually two separate legal systems here in New Zealand? For the able-bodied they are judged by their peers. For the intellectually disabled they are judged on the "balance of probabilities", without a jury trial. Often they have court-appointed lawyers who have no interest in fighting for them or their basic human right to a fair trial. They are intellectually disabled. A conviction does not matter, for they are sometimes sent to a secure facility. Locked up and forgotten.

The irony of the situation is that it enables people to abuse us. Imagine a world where our abusers faced trial under our system. The balance of probabilities. But of course it goes without saying, that would be a breach of your "human rights".

We used to be a world leader; on September 19, 1893 we were first to give woman the right to vote. It's a shame that the special needs community still has to fight for recognition and acceptance to this very day.

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