I work in the disability and mental health sectors. I am Deaf myself and I have had an extensive career in Deaf mental health. On 23 March, when the Government announced the nationwide COVID-19 Level 4 lockdown, I knew immediately that Deaf and disabled New Zealanders would be significantly adversely impacted.
The situation developed so rapidly, that when the lockdown came it was unexpected and some people were unprepared. Many of us in the Deaf community didn't know what COVID-19 was and what effect it would have on us. There was so much contradictory information which led to confusion and panic.
With the support of my colleague Alexandra Carr, who is a Deaf counsellor, we set out to create the Deaf Positive NZ Facebook group. With our respective backgrounds, Alexandra and I knew the COVID-19 situation would be much worse for the Deaf community, especially for those who have limited language and understanding. For many Deaf people, English is their second language.
Although we see New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) interpreters at the Prime Minister’s daily briefings, it’s worth knowing that this represents only a fraction of the information that other Kiwis are able to access. The NZSL Act has improved access to information for the Deaf community, but there are still gaps in education, employment, poverty and mental health outcomes that need to be addressed. Alexandra and I knew we needed another way to bring people together to get them through this crisis.
We all know it is important for our well-being to maintain a positive outlook, and one of the primary aims of the Deaf Positive NZ Facebook group is to encourage people to ‘think positive’ during this difficult time and to help avoid their mental health deteriorating. Our group presents an opportunity for the Deaf community to connect in NZSL, which is our native language.
We have provided a number of activities and classes throughout the day that include storytelling, arts, photography, exercises, self-care, NZSL, and Maori arts. These activities are catered towards Deaf people, Deaf/hearing children, Deaf seniors, Deaf Blind and Deaf with Disabilities.
Our Deaf Positive NZ Facebook group is giving individuals the opportunity to share their talents, be creative and develop leadership skills. Video messaging is a helpful platform for Deaf people to gain confidence, and to share information and experiences.
We've also set up several sub-groups, each led by a selected group member. Examples of these sub-groups involve video chat for isolated and elderly Deaf people. We also have a Deaf Cancer group, cultural groups for Deaf Maori, Pasifika and those from other ethnicities. In addition, we have set up a group for Counsellors and Social Workers who are Deaf or can offer culturally appropriate services.
I keep in touch with each group to see how they are doing and to follow up now and then. I'm the founder and coordinator of the Deaf Positive NZ Facebook group and the different sub-groups. Alexandra is the coordinator for the peer group of Counsellors and Social Workers. We also have six wonderful Deaf administrators who are very supportive.
We all are doing this work from the heart, as volunteers, for at least the duration of the lockdown, so that no one can feel vulnerable and lonely. The COVID-19 lockdown has highlighted how access needs communities are impacted in a crisis. We are bridging the gap for our community. It’s a labour of love but it does highlight the lack of accessible support services. We need to ensure that access communities are not forgotten or left behind.
Accessibility legislation will help address the underlying factors such as gaps in access to information, education, employment, and poverty that exacerbate the impact of emergencies on access needs communities. An Accessible Aotearoa Act will create a stronger and more resilient New Zealand for us all.
This is my access story, it is one of many. I'm sharing it because I want a law that puts accessibility at the heart of an inclusive Aotearoa New Zealand.