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Health Promotion Forum Symposium 31st Oct 2005 PO Box 46256 Herne Bay

Auckland 1002 Aotearoa New Zealand

ph +64 9 376 4837
email info@diversityworks.co.nz
Disability – last bastion of
human rights, or soul choice?
By Philip Patston

Log onto the de Bono Institute’s website at debono.org and the first thing you read is:

“We think to deepen and shift perception, design, innovate and inspire, [and to] think

Read on to discover that Dr Edward de Bono believes, “Any idea that does not raise a howl of protest
is probably not a good idea. If you have to imagine new benefits and you cannot achieve the effort of
imagination,” the renowned thinker surmises, “you have no choice except to resist the new.”

I enjoy thinking – I think a lot. I have come to see thinking as exercise – physical exercise is far too
strenuous if you ask me, so I might as well give my brain a work out. As a result, I say things (talking is
the perspiration of my cerebral aerobics) – things, which are, I am told, funny. No, not funny ha ha, but
funny peculiar. “He says some funny things,” a friend was told by a perplexed workshop participant
recently, after she mentioned my name.

Perhaps not quite a “howl of protest” but, I sense, a slight inability to imagine and a resistance of the

Today, in the next 15 minutes, if I have you howling, I’ll feel successful. If I have you thinking creatively,
inspired and with a deepened perception, I’ll be absolutely wrapt.

In the next 15 minutes I will suggest that:

• discrimination has nothing to do with ignorance – it’s all about denial
• the struggle for rights disempowers
• disabled people define themselves negatively
• disabled people choose to be disabled

A small disclaimer – these are ideas designed to stimulate thought. They are things I think about along
with other, more common thoughts about these issues. I do not expect you to agree but I do
encourage you to think about these ideas and talk about them, as this will be a catalyst for others to
do the same.
Discrimination has nothing to do with ignorance – it’s all
about denial
Clearly disabled people still experience high levels of discrimination. In fact, according to the Human
Rights Commission: Human Rights in NZ Today Summary Report 2004, Chapter 5 “The Rights of
Disabled People”, approximately 25% of all complaints received by the Human Rights Commission are
on discrimination on the grounds of disability. That is well over the population ratio of 20 percent.

And in a report released last week the Commission has also said that the way public transport is
provided and regulated amounts to "systemic discrimination" against disabled people.

The Legal Services Agency site the following as unmet needs of disabled people:
• Access to social services e.g. welfare, housing, WINZ, transport etc. Advocacy and challenging
discriminatory practice and policies is needed in these areas.
• Access to education
• Specific issues for people with experience of mental illness, for example compulsory
assessment and treatment under the Mental Health Act
• Lack of access to the legal system and mistreatment due to a lack of understanding
• Inadequacy of legal remedies.
• Complexities around the rights of a child with a disability versus the rights of their parents.
• Lack of information and training about rights.
• Lack of quality disability appropriate and accessible information and services.

The “explanation” for this blatant disregard for human rights is always “ignorance” – that people lack
awareness. I think that is rubbish! Show me one adult person that has no idea disabled people exist!
Introduce me to one politician that isn’t cognisant that disability issues are unresolved and worsening.
Let me have half an hour with a business owner who isn’t hoping that a disabled person won’t turn up
at their inaccessible office. Or a retailer who hasn’t wished a disabled customer would hurry up and

Before we go any further, let’s get clear about language, because it is fundamentally changing in this
area. Impairment is “the deviation or loss of physiological, anatomical, or cognitive structure or
function from a person’s usual biomedical state. Impairments may result in functional limitations that
restrict activity and participation.” (NZ Health Research Council)

Disability, on the other hand, is “the disadvantages people with impairment experience due to social,
economic, political and environmental factors, which restrict or exclude them from full participation in
their communities.” (New Zealand Disability Strategy)

So, what is commonly known as disability discrimination is actually impairment discrimination and it is
one of the factors leading to disability.

Impairment discrimination is about denial, not ignorance. It is about denial of two things:
1. Denial that it is important not to discriminate on the grounds of impairment, and
2. Denial that every single person has the potential to be impacted by physical, cognitive,
emotional or social impairment.

I believe that the denial that impairment affects everyone at some time in their life, if not permanently
due to age, temporarily due to accidents, is the reason disability (the disadvantages people with
impairment experience, not impairment itself) is so prevalent. We’ve used words like ablism and
disabilism to discribe this, but let me introduce you to a new word, one I made up last week:

Dysfunctionphobia – the fear or hatred of not being able to function independ

The struggle for rights disempowers

Disabled people define themselves negatively

Disabled people choose to be disabled