Lockwood Smith refuses technology support for our first deaf MP

Posted: February 14, 2012 in ableism, civil rights, democracy

In the frame of equal rights, democracy, behind food and medical care, is regarded as one of the most easily justifiable positive rights to assistance people have. States should be willing to spend extra money to fund bilingual, disability, or other accessibility issues in their debating chambers and election systems, not just for MPs that might benefit, but also for the participation of journalists and spectators over TV and the internet.

In a disgraceful move, Lockwood Smith is claiming that support for electronic note taking must be paid for out of Mojo Mathers’ own budget, which would cripple her ability to get the type of office support for her schedule and research that other MPs pay for using their budgets. This technology is essentially required for a deaf MP to realistically follow proceedings in the debating chamber and be an effective representative, but apparently it is not a serious disability issue, and publicising it despite warning the speaker they would do so “shows their* inexperience”. There may be additional process to go through to get these sorts of issues settled, (such as the parliamentary services committee) but the appropriate thing to do then is to expedite those processes, not to outright deny and delay support.

Naturally, not only the Greens, but also the Deaf and hearing-impaired community and the Labour Party are hitting back hard on this issue. This could have been an opportunity for parliament to further embrace the diversity started with the inclusion and translation/interpretation of Te Reo and provide real-time captioning in the debating chamber, acknowledging NZSL’s equal status to English and Mäori as an official language, which would naturally eliminate Mojo’s need to pay for a staff member to take notes for her. With a little additional technology work, live captioning could also result in a live-updated transcription of the debate, enhancing the ability of journalists and the hearing community to quote or use excerpts from the debate in their work or their own political debates.

What’s more, the Speaker is likely in breach of the law by refusing to find some sort of accommodation. The relevant sections of the New Zealand Sign Language Act are:

§9.1.b-c: NZSL should be used in the promotion to the public of
government services and in the provision of information
to the public:
government services and information should be made
accessible to the Deaf community through the use of
appropriate means (including the use of NZSL).

It may be reasonable that the Green Party or Mojo pay some amount of the expense of note-taking until a more permanent solution (hopefully live captioning) can be provided, as long as the expense does not adversely effect the Party or Mojo Mathers’ ability to be effective in the House. But given that the government was notified of Mojo’s requirements as soon as the Green Party knew she was elected, it seems highly unreasonable and smacks of privilege that the government has not yet come up with any ideas better than “Deaf MPs can use up their support budgets for captioning”, and is still dithering about who is responsible. If the Speaker was not responsible, he should have forwarded the matter to the appropriate person or department.

edit: I should clarify that what is being refused is a person to operate this technology so that Mojo can concentrate on the debate, which is a perfectly reasonable request given the interpretation the House already does for Maori on ParliamentTV.


*The Speaker was referring to both Mojo Mathers and Gareth Hughes, second term MP and the new Green Party musterer  which is the equivalent to being a party whip- or for those who don’t follow this stuff too much, he’s responsible for making sure all of his party’s votes are available to be cast.


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