A new era for health and advocacy has arrived for people with disabilities with the launch of Whaikaha – Ministry of Disabled People at Parliament on Friday.
The launch opened with a lively performance by dancers with disabilities at the Banquet Hall with invited guests from across the disability sector.
It was described as a “historic day” by event co-MC and disabled community member Pati Umaga.
But those in the community have been told that while change is afoot, it won’t happen overnight.
* New Ministry for Disabled People first ministry to have a name in three languages
* Disabled people make up most of Community Steering Group guiding the establishment of new Ministry for Disabled People
* New Ministry for Disabled People needs a relevant Māori lens, advocates say
Whaikaha establishment governance group co-chair Gerri Pomeroy said the new ministry gave the disability community greater reach.
“The new ministry presents a unique opportunity, because its role is to both listen to and empower the voices of all disabled people in disability policy across government – and to deliver services,” she said.
Whaikaha – Ministry of Disabled People is the first government ministry in New Zealand to have three official names – one in English, one in Te Reo Māori and one in New Zealand Sign Language.
With the establishment of the new ministry, disability support services were moving from the Ministry of Health to Whaikaha – Ministry of Disabled People, but there would be no changes to funding or personal budgets and disabled people didn’t need to do anything on July 1 to continue receiving support.
The ministry would also roll out the Enabling Good Lives approach to disability support services across the country, giving disabled people more choice and control over their funding.
Former Minister for Disability Issues Carmel Sepuloni announced the new ministry in October 2021, saying at the time that the disability system was “broken”.
She said the name Whaikaha – Ministry of Disabled People was chosen because “it was very strongly felt by disabled people that they didn’t want a ministry that was doing stuff for them. They wanted a ministry that was of them”.
The New Zealand Sign Language name of the new ministry hadn’t been decided yet because the Deaf community needed time to “ascertain how this ministry feels” before determining what the most appropriate name would be, Sepuloni said.
There was also a delay in finalising the appointment of the permanent chief executive however the Public Service Commission confirmed it was a disabled person.
Geraldine Woods has been appointed acting chief executive for a limited time and described the “unexpected” appointment as “emotional”.
Woods was the co-chair of the Establishment Governance Group which was responsible for ensuring the effective establishment of the Ministry of Disabled People.
Woods has previously worked as a public servant with responsibility for funding vocational services with the Ministry of Social Development and also funding disability support services under the Ministry of Health. She also worked in Australia on the National Disability Insurance Scheme in Queensland.
Although she doesn’t identify as someone with lived-experience of disability, she said her role as “temporary guardian” was to put the new ministry on the right path and she gave her commitment to work in partnership with disabled people.
Minister for Disability Issues Poto Williams speaks about the future of the new ministry.
Recently appointed Minister for Disability Issues Poto Williams said there was a clear strategy to ensure that the new ministry has an oversight role to ensure processes throughout all government agencies were fit for purpose.
“So it will be our role as a ministry to support them to do that,” she said.
Sepuloni said issues regarding inclusive education and the lack of affordable housing would not be lumped on the new ministry.
She said the new chief executive’s role will be to ensure that disabled people are involved in the decision-making process when it came to policy work.
In setting up the new ministry, Sepuloni said a governance and steering group including members from the disability community, had been closely involved in the process, including the recruitment of a new chief executive.
Williams said having voices from the community to shape the ministry was imperative.
“Having disabled people at the heart of those conversations and being very critical about what their expectations are, I think these are important aspects to ensuring that,” she said.
Williams said the day-to-day lives of disabled people probably wouldn’t look too different immediately, but once the ministry was fully established it would change the lives of 1.1 million New Zealanders.
Disability advocate and lawyer Dr Huhana Hickey was on the governance board of the new ministry.
She said disabled people needed to be realistic about their expectations for the new ministry because changes won’t happen straight away.
“My dream would be that it will be all that we hope it to be, the reality is that I know it won’t be,” she said.
“You can only do so much that fast and the reality is that, while we’re opening [today], it won’t be ready for 12 months at least to try and get everything in place so that we have a ministry that truly reflects disabled.”
Disability Connect chief executive Mike Potter said changes would not be implemented immediately.
“There’s a lot of hopes and dreams, but the reality is that Government is always slow,” he said.
“It’s about breaking down some of those silos for ministries, across education, across health, across housing, across justice as well. All those areas where [disability support] assessments are being taken, we’d like to see some consistency in that.”
He said the Government also needed to recognise that disabled people were living longer and outliving their parents. He said the current systems in place do not take that into account.
“We need the Government to be held to account, to be up to speed and across the whole of life for disabled people and their families and their whanau.”
Whaikaha – Ministry of Disabled People came into effect on the same day as Health New Zealand and the Māori Health Authority.