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An interview with Paula Tesoriero, Disability Rights Commissioner

Paula Tesoriero took up the role as the Disability Rights Commissioner just over three months ago. In an in-depth interview with ODI, she explains the areas she’ll be focussing on “to really shift the dial for disabled people”.
  • Did you ever imagine you would be where you are today?

Paula Tesoriero, Disability Rights Commissioner
Paula Tesoriero MNZM, Disability Rights Commissioner

I’ve always had a real desire to be in a position where I could make a meaningful contribution to changing the outcomes for disabled New Zealanders. So if I think back to the early part of my career, I started out as a lawyer and then I moved into the public sector; and, during that time in the public sector, I was beginning my journey as an athlete.

When I retired as an athlete, which was in 2010, I was fortunate enough to have some opportunities around some board tables – the NZ Artificial Limb Service, the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation, more recently, Paralympics NZ, and that gave me a real opportunity to devote more of my time to disability issues, in addition to being an athlete and going and talking to a number of businesses, and community groups about my experiences of being a sports person.

During those years of serving on those boards and being part of the Paralympic movement, I was acutely aware that when the right opportunity came up to make a bigger contribution beyond disability in sport, that I would do it. I wasn’t expecting this particular opportunity to come up at this point in my career and so I thought a lot about the pros and cons of doing a role like this at this point in my career but overwhelmingly I saw it as such a fabulous opportunity to use my skills and passion to spend the majority of my focus on disability, compared to when I was on the boards when it was always outside of work and alongside other things.

Now it is the focus of my world – in addition to being a mum, of course. So I didn’t see myself in this particular role necessarily, but I did see myself making a bigger contribution to disability at this point in my career.

  • What do you see as your special qualities and experience that you bring to the role?

I think there are a few things that I will draw on in this role, and they’re not really in any particular order of importance, but one is having lived experience of disability, and so being able to see the world through the lens of disability and to bring that perspective, and that understanding, is important I think.

The second thing is, because I’ve had a long history in public service, I understand how the machinery of government works. I’ve spent time in a Minister’s office and I understand how ministers tick, and how to get things done inside government. I understand that not all of the solutions for the disabled population lie within central government. It is an incredibly important part of the landscape for the population, and so I bring that understanding of how to get things done.

I, also, through the various boards that I serve on, bring contacts, networks, governance experience – because part of my role as a Commissioner is to govern the Human Rights Commission and so my ability to govern our organisations as a Crown entity is something that I can bring my set of skills to.

For me, relationship management is the key to this role and I’ve got a range of contacts across government, across the business community, NGOs, community groups and over time I want to harness those, as part of doing well in this role.

The other thing too is, being a lawyer and being involved in policy at a senior level, I think the ability to analyse, interpret and make a compelling argument is very important in this role. You’re advocating, you’re trying to shift and persuade people of something and so I think that background, both in terms of studying law and practising law, helps as well.

  • What are your priorities during your term as Disability Rights Commissioner?

I am very clear about what my priorities are; they’re drawn from a number of things – what the disability sector has told me, what decision makers have talked to me about, and a number of UN recommendations and domestic reports highlighting the need for progress. I’ve looked at all the complaints that have come into the Human Rights Commission, of which disability is over represented, and looked at the anecdotal evidence. As a result I’ve come up with two categories of priorities – key initiatives and strategic advocacy.

The key initiatives I’ll be focussing on are: Education, Employment, shifting the hearts and minds of New Zealanders, building a more robust data picture of disability in New Zealand, and finally, supporting a strong disability sector.

Why are these priorities? Forty-two per cent of disabled young people are not in education, employment or training. That’s just not acceptable. Education is a key lever to change that outcome, which leads to improved outcomes for housing and various other things. We just can’t afford for another generation to have the same outcome.

There’s 25% versus 75% in the labour force. While you might typically expect a gap, that gap is significantly large. In a thriving economy it’s had to see that it’s about employment opportunities; anecdotally it seems to be more about pre-employment discrimination and the ability for people with disability to participate. There are too many myths around having disabled people in the workforce.

We need to address some underlying things and change the hearts and minds of New Zealanders. We’re not going to be able to lift the performance of disabled people if there are not going to be those opportunities for employment or education.

Data is another foundational piece. If we don’t understand the disabled population in New Zealand we can’t service the needs of that population.

Finally I’m keen to support a really strong disability sector which can continue to contribute around the table, and progress key pieces of work. I’m keen in my role to be really working hard to get the views of young people, Māori and Pasifika, whose views I am keen to see more visible.

We’ve got a programme of work across all of those areas.

Strategic advocacy areas are those where we’ll be very deliberate about raising awareness, providing advocacy and supporting others. These areas are Housing; Accessibility – Infrastructure and information; Violence and abuse; Mental health; Seclusion and restraint; Bio-ethics (place in society); State abuse; and Neurodisability issues, supported decision-making, and support for families.

  • So what will success look like for a disabled person?

Success for me is about shifting the dial on the wellbeing outcomes. Currently, the 42 per cent of disabled young people not being in education, employment or training has to shift. Disabled new Zealanders are overrepresented in violence and abuse statistics, and overrepresented in youth justice system, and care and protection stats.

Also, finally, the disabled population is behind other population groups in New Zealand and fare poorly across other key wellbeing indicators, such as health, feelings of security, they’re more likely to feel lonely and a range of other wellbeing indicators. I’m not going to be able to shift the dial on all of those but I want the conversation to be such that we all accept a responsibility across central and local government, the business community, and the rest of the sector, to shift the dial on these outcomes.

  •  What has surprised you most about what you have learnt?

Certainly, my understanding when I came into the role was based on the roles I had had and on all the reading I had done around the issues. Notwithstanding that, I’ve been surprised at how far behind the disabled population is, and the amount of work needed to shift those outcomes.

The other thing I’m aware of is the amount of great work going on – we have an opportunity to be a bit more strategic and co-ordinated to achieve better outcomes.

I’ve been pleasantly reassured by the willingness of agencies to work with me to shift these outcomes – all seem genuinely committed. I see my job as being to keep raising their awareness and working with them to progress the key issues.

  • What can others do?

I can’t do all this on my own! The key organisations I see helping to take things forward are the Disabled Peoples Organisations, other disability organisations, government agencies, local government, the business community and NGO’s.  In addition the Minister for Disability Issues and other Ministers are critical to help drive better outcomes.

It is important to me that the disability sector supports my role, raises issues with me and also holds me to account.

What I’m saying to stakeholders as I’m sharing my priorities is that I really want to be working in partnership with a lot of organisations – ODI, agencies and business. It’s the only way we are meaningfully going to be able to shift the dial on health and well-being outcomes for disabled people.

What I don’t want to do is duplicate work. I’ve tried to be careful in determining those priorities that what I’m adding is the uniqueness of the role I hold. In some cases it might be really leveraging what others are doing and adding my voice.

There’s a lot of mana for this role and what I have to do is earn the respect of people for the person who holds the role. That’s up to me.

 

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