From accessibility to possibility…

Photo by marianne bos on Unsplash

We challenge all of Aotearoa to reimagine our world and embrace the opportunities accessibility presents.

Minnie Baragwanath –

Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the graduation ceremony of the 2020 cohort from the Be.Leadership programme, held at AUT in Auckland. This programme is an initiative of the Be.Lab, the brainchild of Minnie Baragwanath that began a decade ago with the ambition to see New Zealand become the most accessible nation in the world. Since then the Be.Lab team has worked with leading organisations and citizens to enable greater accessibility for all, whilst also redefining the way accessibility is thought about and discussed.

For the 2020 cohort and the Be.Leadership team this was more than just another graduation. This was the tenth cohort to graduate (making a total of 150 Be.leadership graduates to date) and on top of that, this cohort had to deal with the impact of COVID-19, causing the entire programme to pivot to being delivered online, and causing a delay to the original date for the graduation when the level two lockdown occurred in Auckland in November 2020.

Each of the members of the group has a remarkable personal story of overcoming disability of some kind (mobility, vision, hearing etc.) Each spoke about the impact and support of this programme, providing them with the confidence and skills to take an active role as an advocate for others with disabilities, creating the change that will see those with disabilities given the opportunity to participate fully, without prejudice, in all parts of society – be that in schools, the workplace or community venues and events.

The celebration was inspirational at every level, with speaker after speaker sharing very personal stories of their own experiences in living with a disability, including the co-directors of the Be.leadership programme for the past ten years, Lesley Slade and Philip Patston; the inspirational Red Nicholson, a Be.leadership allumni from the 2016 cohort, and the Disability Rights Commissioner, Paula Tesoriero. These are remarkable people doing some remarkable things – along with each of the others present who I haven’t named in this post, but whose profiles can be found on the 2020 cohort list.

My reason for attending the event was that my daughter, Madeline, was one of the graduates – so my wife and I were present as proud parents to see her celebrate this milestone. Being at the event caused me to take time to reflect on our experience of living alongside a family member with a disability, and how that has shaped the way we think and act – not just my wife and I, but our other children too, and now our grandchildren. She is simply ‘one of us’ and we’d not think twice about her not being able to participate fully in all we do as a family.

Although our daughter doesn’t live with us (she lives independently in her own flat in Christchurch), our home in Wellington has been designed to be fully accessible, so that there are no barriers to her being able to visit. When we go on family outings – or on our annual Christmas camping trips as an extended family, the primary factor in deciding where we’ll go is based on whether it will be accessible for Maddy. Such thinking is second nature due to the fact that we’ve lived with Maddy in our lives and family for more than 30 years now, and as a result, she always feels included and able to participate in whatever is going on.

As I listened to the speakers, and reflected on our own experience with Maddy, my mind traversed the many other instances where things haven’t been so straightforward. The accessibility issues encountered in schools, community buildings, and even around the streets have often created barriers to full participation with others. In saying that I would have to acknowledge that in the past decade I’ve observed a considerable improvement in accessibility – and in the general awareness of many people. (Although there are still those who believe the car parks reserved for drivers with a disability are indicative only, and can be used by anyone with an ‘urgent need’).

But for all the progress being made it is important that we continue to work on being more inclusive. Consider this from the Ministry of Health website

The 2013 New Zealand Disability Survey estimated that a total of 1.1 million (24%) New Zealanders were disabled (see Disability Survey: 2013, Statistics New Zealand). Disability was defined in the survey as any self-perceived limitation in activity resulting from a long-term condition or health problem lasting or expected to last 6 months or more and not completely eliminated by an assistive device. People were not considered to have a disability if an assistive device such as glasses or crutches eliminated their impairment.

With around one out of every four people in our society being officially deemed ‘disabled’ (according to the Ministry of Health definition above) the imperative is clear – we must maintain the good work being done to be more inclusive – in our workplace and in society at large. There are, sadly, still too many stories of those with disabilities (physical, intellectual, vision/hearing etc.) being denied the opportunity to participate to the fullest extent in society. Too often the prospect of extra cost, time or effort required to make the necessary accommodations mean that even the simplest things that will make the difference between inclusion or exclusion get overlooked.

So this is a personal post for me, with a huge appreciation for what the Be.leadership programme – and others who advocate so strongly for the disabled community – are doing, and a gentle reminder for the rest of us that the responsibility rests not only with those in that community, but with all of us.

I find the challenge on the Be.lab website an appropriate quote to end this post:

Our goal of making New Zealand the most accessible nation in the world often requires changing or shifting what has already been designed to make it more accessible than before.

But what if that was no longer necessary? What if accessibility was inherently designed into every new innovation from the very beginning?

Beyond accessibility lies possibility, a space where citizens imagine a world that is different to the status quo

Be.lab website –

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