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NZ’s Disability Sector Needs To Pay Its Advocates

Concerns were raised with me this week about the number of unpaid advocates working in New Zealand’s disability sector, and their concerns are perfectly valid.

The conversation spanned from one I was having on my Facebook Live show about mouthpieces representing disabled people. Firstly, it sometimes seems that there are many of the same names and faces sitting at the decision-making table and speakers at conferences held around the country. These people are referred to as a reasonable go to, seen as “experts” in the disability field, and generally well-respected by the community.

Not all, but most of these people feel well connected to and valued by the disability community. Their travel and accommodation costs are met, and usually, a payment is made for their work preparing and delivering presentations.

Many Advocates Remain Unpaid

That privilege, however, is not the same for everybody. In fact, there is a lot of good, real advocacy happening in New Zealand that continues to go unpaid, and undervalued.

Even at some of the highest levels, the work being done around the table is executed out of passion, not profession. Money isn’t everything, but some of the amazing ideas being generated, for example through the recent System Transformation discussions, are worth thousands of dollars on their own, never mind putting the hard work in to execute. You can’t just spend millions of dollars implementing a new system and not financially reward those who spent countless amounts of hours working with all aspects of the community to ensure its done in the best way possible.

All very well and good giving credit to families, disabled people, and advocates who campaigned for and achieved change. But who gets paid for their time in all this? More people at the top working in jobs where their ultimate responsibility is to deliver a changed system, and a whole lot less who got involved out of nothing more than passion and vision getting next to nothing financially.

That’s the grim reality of what is currently happening to advocates in New Zealand’s disability community.

For example, Hamilton City Council commissioned a promotional video advertising the accessibility of the city’s hot spots and public transport. Well-known advocate Gerri Pomeroy was involved in the project, as well as several recognized local advocates, including Susan Mellsopp, a long-time campaigner for Accessible Transport in the city. I was fortunate to be involved in the video, but declined when Hamilton City Council said they weren’t going to pay us for our time and hadn’t anticipated doing so.

I just didn’t think that I was getting any leverage out of being involved. I’ve appeared in promotional videos before, I’ve been a regular public speaker for a few years, and I’ve had a few bits of my work published on mainstream news outlets. People know who Michael Pulman is, what benefit was being involved in this, for free, going to have for my brand?

If anything, it was us as a group giving Hamilton City Council all the leverage. The videographer got paid a handsome sum for his role in producing the video, so why not us?

NZ’s Disability Sector Needs To Pay Its Advocates 

As much as it’s argued that the disability sector is underfunded, that doesn’t help pay the bills for advocates, particularly those with lived experience of disability, who are talented enough to make a career out of working for change. Sooner or later, advocates have to put food on the table, too.

My personal opinion is that this current reality is a big reason why so many strong, independent, and determined advocates have chosen to let themselves be captured by the sector. The old belief of trying to change the system from inside the system is gradually starting to fall away with the acceptance, finally, that the system itself is broken and needs fixing.

For all organisations, and indeed Government, covering the travel and accommodation costs is not enough financial incentive, especially given the leverage being given to you as a result of these advocate’s time.

To me, if any large mainstream business needed to seek advice on how to improve itself, a third party would get sought after. To think that disability advocates aren’t deserving of being paid is discrimination in itself, because aren’t advisors, speakers, and consultants essentially doing the same thing?

It’s time that the hard work that has been undervalued in the disability sector for so long is recognized, and a big part of that does include people getting paid.

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