Zero Tolerance for Systemic Racism and Systemic Ableism

Four years ago,  in the USA, a Black sportsman knelt on the ground protesting systemic racism and police brutality in his country.  He lost his job, and little changed.  “Taking the knee” became the  symbol of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

More recently, a police officer knelt on a black man, who tragically lost his life, like other black men before in police custody. The police officer lost his job and is now being prosecuted.  There is now a sense of a tipping point, where a critical mass now understands that systemic racism is real and are supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

I have been moved by the Black Lives Matter campaign. While the gatherings were indisputably triggered by the death of George Floyd, the wider issues of systemic racism were undeniably playing their part. The pent-up frustration and emotional pain were very much there for all to see and played out through our modern media platforms, like no other issue in recent times. Witnessing this campaign has personally brought into sharp focus issues of discrimination and the toxic impact it has had for so many people. Here in Aotearoa the intensity of the protest has focused less on police brutality and more on some related issues – colonialism, systemic racism, mass incarceration, dawn raids, and economic and social outcomes – for Māori people and ethnic minorities.

Abuse and neglect in Police custody, cells, and transport; and youth justice settings are in scope for the Royal Commission.  We are also tasked with looking at discrimination, and differential impact on different groups.  I think it’s important that people who have had experience come forward and share their stories.  The Inquiry has a duty to address these issues and the commitment I give is that we will address the tough questions such as systemic racism. Our survivor community expect and deserve nothing less.

Māori are over-represented in our custodial population and in many of the settings we will investigate, such as youth justice.  Lesser known is the over-representation and mass incarceration of disabled people globally in such settings.  In Australia, 89 per cent of people in youth justice facilities have a neuro-disability.  The figure is likely to be similar here.  This generally includes people with labels such as dyslexia, ADHD, Head injury, Autism, Foetal alcohol syndrome, and learning disabilities.

Disabled people are not just those who use disability support services.  You have rights under the UN disability convention if you have had care in psychiatric or community mental health services.  The Royal Commission is tasked with examining abuse; including neglect and inadequate or inappropriate care or treatment, in residential, non-residential, and community settings, and if disability discrimination   was a factor in going into care.  Research generally suggests disabled people are three times more likely than others to experience sexual abuse.  Many disabled people experience inadequate care.  We know, for example, disabled children’s educational needs were neglected in  our schools.

Ableism is a similar concept to racism, attitudes and practices that underpin discrimination may be a factor in perpetuating abuse in care.  (see footnote for information on the definition of Ablism) 

This is a challenge to the Royal Commission and a call to transform how we as a nation, care in our communities. 

It is also a challenge to those who want to be on the right side of history, to decision makers, who have woken to the call to end systemic racism, to challenge your own attitudes and understanding of systemic ableism. 

Engaging with survivor communities including the disability community and giving a voice to marginalised people and groups  is a rewarding experience .  Sometimes progress is slow, but with your support, the Inquiry can give momentum to a similar tipping point to the black lives matter movement now. 

We need to provide a way to ensure Aotearoa better cares for children, young people and vulnerable adults in the future where the stain of discrimination, stigma and ignorance is replaced with hope, compassion and understanding.  I am committed to ensuring the Royal Commission can be an agent for this positive change.

We must have zero tolerance for systemic racism and ableism in our Faith based institutions and our state and community run care.  But we also must create the cultures and environments  of aroha where people can safely learn about ableism and racism, and other attitudes and forms of discrimination

To those disabled people who have shared your story to the Royal Commission, thank you for your maia (courage).   To those who are considering doing so, including families and staff witnesses, we manaki and welcome you, and will find the best way to include you.

Further information on Ableism

Ableism (/ˈeɪbəlɪzəm/; also known as ablism,[1] disablism (Brit. English), anapirophobia, anapirism, and disability discrimination) is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities or who are perceived to have disabilities. Ableism characterizes persons as defined by their disabilities and as inferior to the non-disabled.[2] On this basis, people are assigned or denied certain perceived abilities, skills, or character orientations.

There are stereotypes, generally inaccurate, associated with either disability in general, or with specific disabilities (for instance a presumption that all disabled people want to be cured, that wheelchair users necessarily have an intellectual disability, or that blind people have some special form of insight).[3] These stereotypes in turn serve as a justification for ableist practices and reinforce discriminatory attitudes and behaviours toward people who are disabled.[4] Labelling affects people when it limits their options for action or changes their identity.[5]

In ableist societies, people with disabilities are viewed as less valuable, or even less than human.

The eugenics movement of the early 20th century would be considered an example of widespread ableism.

Ableism can also be better understood by reading literature published by those who experience disability and ableism first-hand. Disability Studies is an academic discipline that is also beneficial to explore to gain a better understanding of ableism. (Ref: Wikipedia)

Information from Contextual Hearing

Paragraph 83 Hilary Stace Brief of Evidence Royal Commission Contextual Hearing:

[1] Building ‘right’ relationships (Kendrick, 2009) and addressing our ‘ableism’ is required. Ableism sees disability as a diminished state of being human which should be ameliorated, cured or eliminated (showing its links to eugenics). Ableism needs to be challenged wherever it exists, whether in state policies, service providers or community attitudes.

Footnote: Ableism is the term for discrimination and prejudice against disabled people. It evolved from eugenic assumptions and remains powerful today.