Buckle in and get ready folks, 2020 should be a year like no other as it pertains to saving and sustaining the disability support system. 

Before we can look forward, we must, as always, take a look back. By any reasonable measure; 2019 was a year of positive stories that should’ve aided optimism heading into what many believe will be a make or break decade for a sector all to often forgotten by the establishment.

In fact, 2019 was pretty great, really.

There was free, yes free, public transport for disabled people in the Waikato, something that was pushed over the line by local advocates. There was the emergence of The Cookie Project as a way to increase disabled employment that appears to be working and, to top it all off, Robert Martin was recognized for his services to the disability community with a knighthood on the New Year honours list.

Indeed, it was a year of highlights if you were willing to look past some of the negative headlines that were shining a light on funding challenges facing existing support systems and the viability of new ones.

And here we are, fresh into a new decade which kicks off with an election year, meaning it is the year of promises. Oh, can’t you feel the sense of optimism?

MP’s Must Show They Care About Disabled People

There will be all the usual discussion of voting and how disabled people make 24% of the population, which means every effort should be made to make the voting process as accessible as possible to the forgotten “voice”. Familiar? Yes.

There will be discussion, perhaps even a few throwing their hat into the ring, surrounding “actual disabled people” being involved in the political establishment, locally and nationally. Familiar? Yes.

Then there are the actual promises themselves, by way of policy and the visions behind such. In other words; there are the actual roadmaps, explanations and commitments behind all the meetings that will take place. Familiar? Yes.

Nothing in 2020 will be new, at least from the spoken word, but it’s the action part where the guts of whatever direction is taken will or won’t be found.

The various MP’s responsible for such matters on both sides of the house have had ample opportunity to engage with disabled people and their families about the issues impacting them, but like usual, the next eleven months prior to the polls will be when most discussions are had.

Make no mistake, there is a difference between politicians hearing and seeing the stories from their own eyes versus hearing it through reports sent by advocacy groups, representational orgs and the ministries implementing systems.

One could argue that the Ministry of Health (MoH), in particular, is coming into 2020 facing the most distrust from the disability community that it’s ever endured. How to turn that, distrust at one level and uncertainty at the core, will be no easy task.

In order to win voters, Carmel Sepuloni, the Minister for Disability Issues, and Associate Health Minister Julie Anne Genter, need to front the criticisms that came in 2019 head-on and actually discuss them.

Just how did the MoH come so close to making such radical cuts? How can disabled people, many of which make up eligible voters, trust that there is actually a sustainable system in place to ensure it doesn’t become a possibility again? How much further investment is needed, not just to cover all basis, but assume sustainability?

All key questions need to be asked because what happened in April 2019, and the lead up to it, wasn’t the MoH just deciding to be bad people and take care away from disabled people. Quite the opposite, in fact, it was something which the powers that be determined was a requirement in order to be cost-effective.

The only way to ensure such an occurrence doesn’t happen is to invest. Either that, or finally admit that the system may not be as inclusive as many would have you believe.

In their hard-hitting report towards the end of 2019, NZDSN (New Zealand Disability Support Network), advocating on behalf of providers, said that there needs to be a national discussion about what a “reasonable and necessary” taxpayer contribution towards Enabling Good Lives and what its sustainability is.

The question then becomes, if it turns out that the new system isn’t sustainable, then what?

That’s why, whichever way you lean politically, 2020’s election will likely see policies that promise a significant uptake in investment towards the Disability Support System (DSS). There will be an announcement as to the future of Enabling Good Lives, and this could potentially include a timeframe for when the “new system” rolls out nationally.

It’s hard to see what else either Labour or National can do in order to make a splash, and by any sense of scale, this is an area where a fresh coat of paint is needed. Whilst Enabling Lives may represent the great new frontier, behind how the principles are being implemented reeks of the old ways of doing business.

It all becomes about how much either party and their responsible ministers truly care about doing something in this area.

The absolute worst result would be a middling, half-baked and long-term vision that is light on detail. You’ll likely get “over three years” type of talk from politicians, but if there is no substance behind whatever is said, alarm bells should rightly ring come November.

Also, let’s not forget how political the End of Life Choice bill and Legalization of Cannabis will become in terms of the disability space if they haven’t already. These two conversations have the potential to overshadow some of the crucial questions that need to be asked surrounding how support for disabled people is delivered and sustained in New Zealand.

Be very wary of that, every effort must be taken to ensure that all voices are heard and that there are actual answers to what those voices will ask.