Access by Various artists


Reaching out

by Chelle Hope

What do you do when you’re not at all sure how to be ok anymore? The well known, well-publicised advice is to talk to someone, which is excellent advice and a great start. What if you feel like your life is a mess and you’re having a terrible time and you don’t know what to do?

Full disclosure: This has been me for a while now. On top of that, what if you have disabilities that can affect your quality of life in a profoundly negative way unless you really have your life sorted, but those same disabilities can also prevent or make it difficult for you to ‘sort your life out’, whatever that means? Also me. 

I don’t know how to be ok right now. I’m tenacious, I know that much about myself. I don’t give up without a fight. There are loads of us out there, disabled or not, who go through stages where they are not ok and they don’t know how to be ok in that moment. I know this because I’ve been on the listening end of such conversations with all sorts of people. It’s a privilege to be confided in. I find it a lot easier than reaching out and hoping people will listen, especially when you don’t expect they know any more than you do about how to make things better for yourself. 

I don’t know what the answer is to this overwhelming feeling of life not meeting my own expectations, which is some but not all of what I’m feeling. I have a hunch it might lie in my interactions with others. That’s where I’m placing my energy right now. I’m talking to people about how I’m feeling and I’m working on plans to surround myself with more people. 

I’m pretty new at this ‘reaching out’ thing. I’ve always done what I needed to do for self-preservation but during these times of undefined and nebulous struggle, I’ve tended to keep to myself. I don’t like to worry people or bring people down and that idea at the back of my head of being a burden, brought on through ableist conditioning, tends to rear its ugly head, too.

Talking to people about what’s going on for me feels raw and it feels vulnerable and it doesn’t always go brilliantly but it’s much better than shutting up about it. Just the experience of talking to people has reminded me that I do have people in my life who I can talk to. That has already been helpful.

I should make it clear that I am not depressed. I’ve had a lot of experience with depression and this is not that, for which I’m grateful. I know that change in myself and in my circumstances will help and I know from past experiences that while it might feel like everything is terrible, it almost certainly won’t take much to make improvements that will affect my quality of life for the better. I also know I’m going to need some help, which is never easy to ask for, especially when I’m not exactly certain of the shape that help needs to take. It’ll probably take some trial and error.

Disability can be a profoundly isolating experience. I know I shouldn’t compare myself to others and for the most part I don’t, but I can’t sit here and say it’s fine that my life trajectory cannot measure up in any objective way to that of my peers and that it’s ok that I’m struggling so much to live the life I want for myself. I feel lonely, not just in a practical sense because I don’t have enough people in my life, but also because I find it difficult to talk to people about the things that are bothering me who don’t share my experiences and who don’t live the kind of life I live. 

I guess I find the isolation of disabled people, including myself, unacceptable because it is fixable. Our society is still not really equipped to provide the opportunities that many disabled people need to have the baseline quality of life everyone should have the right to expect. Many of us have to fight hard for a good life and in my case it only takes a few things to go a bit wrong to feel like I’m really in an uphill battle that I’m not winning.

I’m going to try to get more support in place so that I have more of a safety net and so that I can work on enriching my life without risking what is already precarious health; not only a tricky balance, it’s sometimes just not an option. I’ve heard many stories of people who were struggling anyway who had their support taken away or reduced. I’m lucky that this hasn’t happened to me, yet. I’m not completely confident though that I’ll get what I need. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see and come up with another plan if that doesn’t work out.

Right now I’m in the middle of a two-month break from my PhD thesis on medical grounds. Nothing serious; a couple of things went wrong in my life in fairly quick succession though, culminating in a painful bout of shingles with the complication of post-herpetic neuralgia (chronic nerve pain) thrown in for fun. When I can get back to it, researching for my PhD will hopefully, at least at times, be a connective and enriching experience. Even though I’m working on it extramurally while I try and find an accessible house in Wellington, I’ve actually already met people who I feel very grateful to have made a connection with. 

I’m researching disability identity and I will be conducting interviews with disabled people as part of that research. I’m looking forward to that. I need things to look forward to. In the meantime, I’ll plug away at trying to make my life bigger and better in small ways that I hope will add up to something good.

I need a holiday from myself. I think maybe we all feel like we want to escape ourselves, our bodies, our lives sometimes. Whatever happens, there will be changes and you know what they say; change is as good as a holiday.


Of value in and of itself

by Chelle Hope

‘Special Needs Kids’. I’ve always hated those words.

Yet many parents of children who have needs that would not otherwise be provided for by any of our government-run systems have become accustomed to using this language and see it as essential in the framing of their children’s needs, so that they might get access to important funding. I have sympathy for this approach, from the perspective of people trying to access limited funding for their children – but how we talk about ourselves and others in relational terms matters a great deal.

The articles and the comments that follow articles about such subjects have had me so down about the state of things for people with disabilities, including myself, that I haven’t been able to write this until now, many weeks after I was approached to write something. It’s really got to me and not for the first time.

When we talk about ‘special needs kids’ it becomes obvious when you read the comments on any article highlighting issues around government support and funding for disabled people that this framing is having a continuing detrimental effect on how some non-disabled people view disabled people. They frame the needs of disabled people against their own, which are seen as a priority.

I haven't picked up on a consensus, but there are enough people who have commented that we should sort out the needs of ‘normal’ people before we look to those with ‘special needs’ that it makes me want to cry. The language that they use tells me they see disabled people as abnormal, with everything that label suggests. It’s a useful demonstration that we must be careful with rhetoric meant to serve a particular purpose that it isn’t used against us. We all have needs. Needs are needs, they are not special.

I’m not going to link to or reference a specific article here. My gripe is not with one journalist or article, or the comments on one article for that matter. My problem is with how public discourse around disability frames us in terms of our economic worth. 

One of the things that those of us who were born with or who have acquired disabilities in childhood learn early on in life is that we are considered a burden by the public and by the state. Again, this is amplified in public discourse and particularly in the media. It’s difficult not to imagine that there are people who would prefer we die in a ditch than get access to government funded services and assistance that might improve our lives to the extent that they are liveable, which seems to me to be a minimum ‘quality of life’ standard.

I was always confident, right up until my mid 20s, that I would not be a ‘burden’ to anybody. I had earned a 1st class honours degree and I had participated in university life and worked part-time for the university in a couple of different areas. I was active in politics and I had a good social life. I felt I didn’t have any problems keeping up with my peers. The next step was getting a full-time job so that I could be a fully contributing, worthwhile, useful, taxpaying member of society. Nobody was going to refer to me as a burden! 

Well, life got in the way. 

First, in what I suspect were instances of careful and unprovable discrimination when I was applying for jobs and then when my health began to deteriorate and it became clear I was no longer a suitable candidate in the existing job market due to the unpredictability of my health.

When I had my leg amputated in 2014, it had been 10 years, from ages 24-34, since I’d had anything like a normal life and – even with improved health – with my body wrecked and a very short CV with a gaping hole in it, I found myself unemployable.

The fact is though, by the time I left school, I’d already cost the state a massive amount just in my healthcare alone, let alone in education. I have absolutely no idea what sort of figure we are talking and no real interest in knowing how much I cost the taxpayers of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? I know the figure will be staggeringly high.

The time it took for my mother to look after my basic needs, especially as a baby and young child, was also very much higher than the time she needed to invest in my three sisters. That time was intensified greatly during health crises and post-surgical care. I have cost a lot of people a lot of time and money over my lifetime. 

My parents had to make decisions early in my life that were necessary and life-saving but they were not a given. They were far from encouraged to enable me to live any kind of life. For them though, it was a no-brainer. They fought for me and my life. They never weighed up how much I was going to cost them or the Aotearoa/New Zealand taxpayer. I was their baby and they made the best decisions for me with the information they had at the time. Every decision they have made for me throughout my lifetime since then was with my quality of life in mind. This country could learn a lot from my parents’ example.    

Don't get me wrong, I’m a big fan myself of enabling disabled people who can work to get jobs and careers. Not having something meaningful to fill my days is indescribably spirit-breaking and not being financially independent at my age is truly degrading and depressing. 

Given comments I’ve heard over my adult life, I know people think it’s a charmed life not having to work. Not having to work is quite different to not being able to work, though. There are a great many things that are barriers to people getting into and remaining in work, mine happen to be disability-related. 

One place that has been accommodating of my disabilities has been university. After a 15 year break, I’m about to begin my PhD on disability identity in NZ. I have been accepted as a doctoral candidate and by the time you read this, I will probably have started officially, though I’ve been thinking and reading about it for months now.

The chances that I’ll be able to work much, if at all, after I get my PhD I would say are minimal. I hope I’m wrong but I have to proceed in the context of it being a project of value in and of itself. I don’t have the luxury of looking too far into the future, which is completely unpredictable for me, at best.

At this point, it’s a gamble whether I’ll be able to get through the three or four years of intensive research and writing that I’ll need to invest to even get it done, but I think it’s very telling that I’m confident enough in the university environment, with its excellent support system and infrastructure, to give it a damn good go. 

In one of my favourite songs (Fantastic Voyage) off my favourite David Bowie album, Lodger – don't @ me – he sings: 

“Remember it’s true, dignity is valuable but our lives are valuable, too.” 


Hawking radiation and the simplest things

by Paul Gibson

Stephen Hawking radiated cool. He made nerdy physics cool. At the same time, he made disability cool, and synthetic speech sexy.  He was the outstanding physicist of his time. And because of, rather than despite, his communication impairment, he was also the outstanding physics communicator of his time, and perhaps all time.

His time has now run out.  Time was something he understood.  He wrote best selling books on it. At 21 he was given two years. Many disabled people live tenuous lives which can force the sorting out of what really is important. In the disability world, professionals fear giving false hope to disabled people and their families – in doing this they create the real problem  of false despair. He soon got over this. His life and his achievements were to be celebrated.

At the same time, he was able to make inroads into understanding  the forces of universal scale and sub-atomic scale, gravity and nuclear forces.  He was able to predict the theory of the Big Bang, and later the possibility of a Big Bang many times over.  He did pioneering work on black holes, and observed that they weren’t so black, radiating energy until they shrank to nothing. This radiation, called Hawking radiation, is a kind of black hole legacy.  He debated string theory with not-yet-out “aspie” Sheldon Cooper, and a theory of a doughnut shaped universe with Homer Simpson.  

I depart from many non-disabled commentators (and their gaze of inspiration porn) that I have been hearing since Professor Hawking's death.  He was never confined to a wheelchair or a communication device. He was enabled  and liberated by these. He deserves our respect, not our exploitative  praise born out of pity accompanied by inaction.    

He also had to be a pioneer disability rights activist. He had to fight for the simplest things non-disabled people take for granted – a home, the support to get out of bed, the access to move freely around the community, and the right to live.  He and his first wife Jane had to fight for support to raise their family, to get his support needs met in their home. They had to fight for the basics of accessibility to housing, places of education and moving around their streets and universities. They had to fight to keep out of hospitals. When medical professionals wanted to pull the plug, they had to fight against the professionals' assumptions about the value and quality of his life.  He lived another 30 years.

My favourite Stephen Hawking moment  in time is his comment on special schools. He felt privileged to not have been a disabled child and have never had his family persuaded or coerced into accepting that a segregated special school was the place for him. He compared segregated special schools to apartheid. Kids need to grow up and learn alongside the diversity that exists in all our communities. 

Entering a special school can be like crossing an event horizon: the point beyond which there is no possibility of a return to a good life in the community as an adult.  But then there is Hawking radiation.  The disability rights movement agrees with the special-schools-are-apartheid comparison. They will slowly die off, and through this we will learn from their legacy.    

Stephen Hawking leaves behind his own radiating legacy of hope in achieving both the greatest things through the power of his unique intellect, and the simplest things through the tenacity of small-scale disability rights activism. Maybe in our time we can all achieve the latter.


Don’t tell me stories about the disabled women you know

by Wendi Wicks

By the time the third panellist responded to my question about inclusion –about concrete actions to include disabled women – with stories about the disabled women they knew, or knew about, I was getting ticked. Very ticked. It’s something that happens regularly if the matter of discussion is disabled women, and here it was again.

Now there’s always a back story, and when it comes to including disabled women in women, it’s a WAY BACK story. You’ll know that disabled people in general have problems getting a fair suck of the sav – like for forever. And for pretty much as long as that, disabled women have struggled to be acknowledged and included within the category "women". It’s easy to veer off into this, but enough to say I could elaborate on the record of this for an eye-watering length of time. Back story of being invisible, being pushed to the margins established, return to the panel.

It was a panel discussion for the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage; Whakatu Wahine. The panellists were women from government, academia, media, community organisations: in short, well connected and presumably knowledgable sorts.

I got to ask a question. Well aware of the back story, as a disabled woman well connected to my community’s stories, my thesis was about our stories aching from the responsibility  I asked my question: what would the panellists do in their respective arenas to further the inclusion of disabled women who haven’t been or don’t feel included?

I have the stories of these other disabled women in my head, in my mouth, and we have been here before. In the asking, I described a disabled woman having the utter affrontery to ask about what the accessibility of the events would be (she is more or less told to do it herself if she wants it). Her experience is our shared everyday experience. It’s about far more than individual stories, my question, but it’s grounded in the accumulation of our oh-so similar experiences.

As the panel responded I began to simmer. I was told stories about individual disabled women, and about what happened to them. I was told the story about disability history. Government agencies set up for women and their work were described. I was to be congratulatory that there is a NZ Sign language interpreter at the event. Access forsooth!

There was no media acknowledgment of the pioneering work of Helen MacConnachie and Diane Stogre-Power. I was to understand there is progress, that they understand us, that they are onside. One of the panellists acknowledged my implicit challenge but mostly there are the stories about somebody else. And how hard it all is for us.

I know how it goes down at these occasions, and knew no reasonable response could be expected. So I did not pursue matters – on the spot follow-up, the attempt to pursue enlightenment, inclusion, justice comes at a substantial cost to the soul. I have spent a lifetime being an educational artefact, with little notable gain it seems. I was too tired of the stress, so I bottled up the wrath and went home. When the video feed went up on Facebook, I posted some of what I did not say

I said that the response was greatly disappointing, that we had any number of really bad social indicators of poverty and exclusion, that we were expecting a better reception than we were getting  from the women’s community and that this certainly didn’t merit a response of stories and "look what we’ve done" responses. I said that we, the women of the "edges margins and rocky perches ... who are surviving in the rocky outposts" expected better from them than anecdotes of what they know of some of us.

I also pointed out we’ve been in there, crutches, dogs, wheels and all, to push for our needs and rights. We’ve also been in there marching, signing petitions, lobbying, writing submissions, advocating for women’s issues for forever.  Now was the time for all to mean all and not have our access, our inclusion tacked on at the last minute or be told to organise it ourselves. We want to see ourselves in there and visibly representing ourselves, writing chapters, making keynotes, being part of panels, having research or podcasts or exhibitions about us.

I wondered what response I’d get. It came in two varieties: a tooth-grindingly patronising response from the Ministry for Women, thanking me for the sincere and thoughtful feedback – they appreciated my raising the issues and creating a dialogue. They invited me to contact them directly to tell them specific ways in which they could address my concerns. They were at least fairly prompt.

Neither a soothing cuppa, nor retail therapy could really assuage the incandescence this "sod off sweetie" response incited. And it didn’t help that nobody else-nobody responded to the post. The women I called to who were online didn’t utter a peep, choosing instead to talk about how super it all was, and weren’t there some good points about prostitution. Not until a small coterie of sound allies weighed in after a day or so, did anyone else say a thing in solidarity.

Here’s the thing: the Whakatu Wahine situation began from a standpoint of exclusion. The response and the silences of no-response said as clearly as can be that there is still a vast gap. The gap is not just in the access to services, to supports, to being  there, to solidarity, to inclusion; the gap is also, in the attitudes that "other", exclude, that dismiss and disvalue.

It’s not just an about me story. Every disabled woman I’ve told this to (and the aforementioned sound allies) has felt angry as did I. We know what it meant. And we are angry. It is the anger of disabled women who are sick of being ignored, being othered. We are waiting, but not at all patiently now. Don’t tell us stories about disabled women you know, don’t tell us our history (we know, and we were most likely there). Time for us to be part of all. Now.


GTFO of Our Accessible Bathrooms

by Chelle Hope

I travelled to Wellington recently to meet with a few academics. I’m starting a PhD next year, so I needed to discuss my topic, my proposal and other logistics. It was very exciting for me and I always enjoy being in Wellington. It was my home for 10 years after I finished school and in many ways, it still feels like home so many years later. It was a very successful trip and I enjoyed myself, for the most part.

There was one issue that really took the shine off it though; every time I needed to use an accessible bathroom while I was out and about, it was occupied and on no occasion was the bathroom taken by a disabled person.

Of course there are instances where a disabled person might need to use an accessible bathroom who might not appear to have a disability at first glance, which is why it is important not to jump to conclusions about whether someone has a genuine need to use an accessible bathroom. Much like people who use accessible carparks when they are displaying a legitimate permit, people can be unfairly judged. There are many able bodied people though who reveal the information themselves, in their demeanour and their response, without any provocation, that they do not need to use a wheelchair accessible bathroom.

There is no law saying that if you are not disabled you cannot use an accessible bathroom. Indeed, some able bodied people believe they are as entitled as we are to use these facilities. Well, I am here to tell you, you are absolutely not. This matter is unequivocal in my mind. If you don’t have a disability, do not use an accessible bathroom.

There are two exceptions, of course: If it is a shared “parents’ room”/accessible facility, which is not ideal but not your fault, or if it is the ONLY bathroom available. In these cases, use the facility without guilt but be mindful of the time you are taking and whether or not you really need to use this space. I don’t mean to say you should ‘hold it’ until you find somewhere else, that’s not healthy. When you gotta go, you gotta go.

But if you are using the bathroom to freshen up your makeup, alone or with friends, or if you are using the bathroom for sex, alone or with friends, or if you are using the bathroom, alone or with friends, as a backdrop for a photoshoot for social media – Seriously, WHY do people do this?? – or for any other reason that doesn’t require a toilet or sanitary disposal method, GTFO of our damn bathrooms, already!

If you are using accessible bathrooms and you don’t need to be using accessible bathrooms, if you are sheepishly apologising, or worse, justifying using an accessible bathroom when you are not disabled, you should expect at the very least to be glared at. AT THE VERY LEAST. You know what? I’m all for diplomacy and cutting people a break when it comes to understanding disability. It… is… exhausting but I see it as the best strategy. On bathrooms though, nope. You do not get a pass.

If you are using an accessible bathroom and there are stalls available, or if you can wait for a stall to become available, it is a moral failing for you to use an accessible bathroom. You are saying to disabled people that you do not care about us and our most basic needs. You are saying to us that it is more important to you to get in earlier, or to have more space than you actually require, or to take more time in a space that is specifically meant for us as disabled people, than it is for us to be able to perform the most basic of functions.

There is no delicate way to say this: Stop using our bathrooms to take long and stinking shits. IDGAF that you’re trying not to stink out the stalls, or that you feel entitled to more privacy than the stalls allow. If you are taking a shit, it’s probably going to take a long time, in which case I might be waiting on the other side of the door for a long time. Frankly, the ‘courtesy’ that you have extended to stall users means that disabled people like me, who don’t have a choice about where we go to the bathroom, have to feel like we are suffocating in your stench. It’s not fair.

Accessible bathrooms provide more than features such as grip rails and extra space for mobility aids. Bathrooms that are usable by disabled people are essential so that we can be out of the house and living independent lives that don’t require us to travel home, or wherever we are staying, every time we need to use a bathroom.

You are saying to those of us who don’t have the luxury of being able to ‘hold on’ if an accessible bathroom is being used by you, a person who does not NEED this facility, that it is ok with you that we might piss ourselves, or worse, waiting. Many of us do not have bodies that work like yours. We have to plan so that we can avoid embarrassing situations that can actually ruin our day. The non-essential activities that able bodied people often use accessible bathrooms for take so much time that we have to weigh up whether we need to go in search of another bathroom in another building, which might be next door or blocks away, or if we should risk waiting, with no idea of how long you are going to take.

Lastly, businesses and public owned buildings REALLY need to stop locking accessible bathrooms, especially if it is not explicitly clear where we might find a key. Who are you keeping that bathroom pristine for? By the time we figure out who to talk to and how to unlock your impenetrable fortress, our day might well be ruined. I understand that such bathrooms are often used by homeless people and the state that the bathrooms might be left in could make them unusable for us anyway. I understand this because this is a problem I encountered a couple of times in my trip to Wellington.

It makes me angry, not because homeless people are using our accessible facilities but because there is clearly a need that is not being met by our communities, that is having a negative impact on both groups. It’s heartbreaking. When you lock homeless people out of accessible bathrooms without another solution available to them, they are going to find the next accessible bathroom that isn’t locked. Accessible bathrooms are not set up properly for the needs of homeless people who don’t have proper access to facilities needed for privacy and basic hygiene. This is a problem that needs to be addressed by our government and communities for the good of both populations.

If you are still in any doubt, be aware that every time a disabled person is waiting to use an accessible bathroom, and you’ve taken forever, and you open the door with some sheepish excuse as to why you are using our accessible bathroom that does not involve disability, that even if we don’t say anything to you out of politeness, or out of fear of confrontation, or just because we are exhausted at having to deal with this crap, we are all thinking the same thing: “Arsehole”.

Do better.