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Source: Human Rights Commission

Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero opening speech to the  neurodiversity forum on 2 October 2020.

Thank you Guy Pope-Mayell, the Dyslexia Foundation New Zealand, and the Cookie Time Project for drawing this important forum together. I would like to also acknowledge Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft. Judge Becroft and I have worked for some time now on highlighting issues to do with neurodiversity. 

In my role as Disability Rights Commissioner, I liaise with a large number of stakeholders on issues around neurodiversity to dispel misconceptions and create inclusive environments. I talk with policymakers across education, the justice system, housing and employers. A number of submissions on Policy reform I make specifically refer to the rights of neurodiverse people and I take up opportunities to speak on issues in the media and at forums like this. 

I am also part of the Independent Monitoring Mechanism (IMM) overseeing New Zealand’s compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The IMM released its report Making Disability Rights Real Report this year which also highlights a number of issues for neuro-diverse people. 

I’m going to talk about the “why” through this opening address.  

The over-arching question is Why the focus in this area of neuro-diversity?  

Because wherever I look across my work, many neuro-diverse people miss out at almost every intersection across the life course- education, housing, employment, and the justice system. 

No one has a monopoly on good ideas on how to resolve many of these intractable issues, but I hope that today provides the opportunity to have honest, brave and constructive conversations on these issues.  

Also the other reason to focus in this area is because these issues are fundamentally human rights issues.  

As Disability Rights Commissioner, my vision for Aotearoa New Zealand is the same as that in the United Nations Disabilities Convention - it is one where disabled people’s human rights are enjoyed every day in every single way.  Where everyone has choice and control in their own lives on an equal basis to others, and that disability and difference become positive identities that we value and embrace as a nation.   

This approach is founded on the Social Model of Disability which states that it is the way in which society organises itself that creates exclusion and, therefore, disables people.  

If our world was set up in a way that caters for all, then the 24% of New Zealanders who are disabled would not be excluded or restricted. When these barriers are broken down, we belong and we can thrive. 

I quote from the Cambridge Neurodiversity Hub – “it is not the neurodivergent individual who needs to be squashed through society’s one-size-fits-all neurotypical hoop, rather it is society that needs to be educated to allow everyone a hoop of their choice.” 

And this certainly extends into the world of work, and why we are here today discussing where New Zealand is at in recognising disabled people’s rights and translating that into inclusive neurodiverse-friendly work environments. 

As a nation, we like to think we live in an inclusive and fair society. We know, of course, that the reality is somewhat different for many of us who identify as disabled, or neurodiverse.  

Attitudinal barriers can be our biggest hurdles in the form of:  

  • Prejudice and assumptions about our abilities, our goals, and ambitions  
  • Ignorance about the reality of our lives 
  • Myths that we are more expensive or difficult to employ  

All of which we can sum up as “ableism” where anyone who does not fit society’s “norms” are treated as of less value, -whether consciously or unconsciously.  

And this impedes peoples’ right to work and access to other human rights like a decent home and standard of living. 

School may be the starting point where students who don’t conform to some “norm” feel they aren’t welcome, celebrated or supported to thrive. School leaders, teachers, coaches, and even parents’ low expectations and misconceptions fuel this. They may influence our decisions and confidence about what we are capable of and whether we try to go on to higher education or enter the workforce. When attitudes are positive those same people can also be our greatest allies. 

There’s not a lot of data about disabled people and our experiences, or how common neurodiversity is in our population and workforce, and this gap needs addressing. “If it isn’t counted, we don’t count.” 

It’s obvious from the employment and other stats that we do have, just how urgent it is for us to make a step change. 

The June 2020 Household Labour Force Survey showed that the employment participation rate remains stubbornly at just 24% for disabled people, compared with 72% of non-disabled. We now have a four-year time series that has shown no real improvements for disabled people’s employment opportunities, but it certainly goes further back than that.  

Young disabled and neurodiverse people remain significantly less likely to be in Education, Employment or Training compared to their non-disabled peers.  In fact, it’s nearly 4 times as high for disabled young people aged 15-24.   

Neurodiverse people are over-represented in our youth and adult justice systems. Lack of support and reasonable accommodation for people with neurological conditions are contributing factors to this.  These disparities represent a significant waste of talent and potential, and real hardship in people’s lives.  

And this brings me to another “why” which is why it’s so important economically and socially to reduce these disparities. 

It’s important to acknowledge that many neurodiverse people overcome barriers and can contribute original thinking and achieve remarkable things, becoming leaders in their field. 

But it shouldn’t be so hard. So why is it? 

Employers and organisations often aim to think differently and creatively yet don’t open the door to people who bring precisely those attributes.  Stumbling blocks like inflexible recruitment and interview processes, and preconceived notions of what a “good employee” acts like, get in the way. 

Employers and business miss out. 

Many are saying that one key way to manage our current economic situation is through technology.  In his book NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman points out that the incidence of autism is particularly high in places like Silicon Valley – the global centre for high technology.  

A growing number of companies, including SAP, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, and Microsoft, have reformed their HR processes in order to access neurodiverse talent—and are seeing productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and increased employee engagement as a result.  

So how can you as leaders and decision-makers – the employers and recruiters among you – influence positive change, taking steps to creating level playing fields, to reflect our diverse population, boost productivity, and ensure you understand your obligations? 

Is our current legal framework enough? 

Under the Human Rights Act 1993, employers must not discriminate against a person because of their disability. An employer is also obliged to reasonably accommodate a person’s disability, including providing special services or facilities if needed. Complaints about discrimination related to neurological difference can be raised under Section 21 of the Act. 

While exceptions can apply, if steps aren’t taken to reasonably accommodate the requirements of a disabled person, then organisations may be required to do so. If they do not, then this may amount to unlawful discrimination in terms of the Human Rights Act.  

Reasonable accommodation is also a key concept in the United Nations Disabilities Convention. Ensuring reasonable accommodation often costs very little or nothing at all, and can be as simple as changing attitudes, means of communication, or improving accessibility. Some of these things are common courtesy. At other times agencies may need to make more fundamental changes. 

Fortunately, you don’t need to start from scratch There are resources available to help like the Government’s Accessibility Guide and Lead Toolkit, and for specific support, organisations like the Dyslexia Foundation.  

If you need to convince your board or others of the benefits of diversity, then you can also find resources and reports on the Diversity Works NZ website. 

So we have some processes that respond to issues of discrimination. And when in employment we have the usual employment law protections and remedies.  But maybe another layer is needed.  

Some of you might know about the proposed accessibility legislation initiated by the Accessibility Alliance with a goal to set out a framework and sets out how accessibility standards will be developed and implemented over time to accelerate accessibility across a range of domains including employment.  

The Alliance have found that Business is supportive of accessibility legislation, if it’s coupled with awareness, education and support on how they can become accessible over time. So let’s focus on this. 

More than 80% of Kiwis support mandatory accessibility legislation and regulations on enforceable access standards (July 2017 UMR). USA, Canada, Israel, Australia, United Kingdom, EU and Brazil have all passed legislation addressing access barriers, in compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. New Zealand has not yet done so. 

I hope the progress of this legislation will help improve employment outcomes and I’ve been pleased to support the advocacy for this change.  

The other vehicles currently in play are the NZ Disability Action Plan which has a range of employment actions and also the newly released Working matters 2020 Plan which is a disability employment action plan.  

I encourage you in your discussions today to think about leveraging off these initiatives and thinking about what else might be needed.  

This is particularly critical with the potential for people already disadvantaged in the workforce will be disproportionately hit hard by COVID-19 redundancies and fewer vacancies because of the pandemic economic downturn.  It is vital that recovery strategies aim to increase decent work opportunities for all New Zealanders. 

COVID19 has forced changes to how companies operate and shown how we can work more flexibly, and how we need to think and behave differently. A shift in mindsets is a must. An organisation that embraces the difference that neurodiverse people bring may well have a competitive advantage in this new world.  

We said after lockdown -we’d never go back! I heard a lot of stories during lockdown where people had talked about their employer not allowing flexi-time or working from home, yet when the whole country had to do it- suddenly it was ok! This flexibility offers huge advantage for many disabled people, and I think is key to successful outcomes.   

While on the topic of COVID, I want to mention what many neuro-diverse people told me.  

  • Shopping 
  • School 
  • Non-disabled people’s sense of isolation 

This demonstrates my final ‘why” which is changing attitudes. In my view we won’t be successful across most Policy domains unless we shift the underlying attitudes about neuro-diversity. We talk about racism in NZ as we should – it’s time for a national conversation about ableism. About the bias and mis-information we hold on to. 

In summary, today is very important. 

The right to work underpins the realisation of other human rights, such as housing and education; we are obliged under domestic and international law to not discriminate on the grounds of disability; and from an economic perspective – inclusive employment practices benefit everyone especially the employing organisations and their customers. Fortunately, support is available, and on today’s agenda. 

So get amongst it, make those connections, seek out those who can help, and learn what you need to do to give neurodiverse people a fair go. 

I wish you all the best for today.

MIL OSI New Zealand News