Editorial: Unseemly row brings alive disability issues

Mojo Mathers. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Mojo Mathers. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Mojo Mathers is the first member of Parliament in New Zealand who is oblivious to the hubbub, the muttered asides, the gossip and groans around her.

To that extent, her hearing disability could be an advantage.

But she also needs to hear the debate, interjections, questions and answers, points of order, Speaker's rulings, and discussions in select committees and caucus meetings.

That much has been obvious since she was elected on the Green Party list nearly three months ago.

Parliament and the Greens ought to have made necessary arrangements long before she came to deliver her maiden speech this week. Neither side can escape blame for the unseemly public argument it became.

Parliamentary Service had provided her with technical equipment to receive an electronic transcript of what was said in the House, but had not provided a person to write the transcript.

Speaker Lockwood Smith thought the Greens would assign someone from their support staff, the Greens thought Parliament would provide. When the Greens discovered otherwise this week they made the most of it.

They succeeded in embarrassing Dr Smith, who sounded heartless until he explained that additional staffing for a member was beyond his statutory power to provide. But the Greens should be embarrassed too. Having put a deaf person high on their list, they ought to have foreseen all her needs in Parliament and taken more responsibility for her assistance.

It was not unreasonable to think the party would provide her assistant. Ideally, the person would not only transcribe speeches but be alert to comments, interjections and nuances of particular interest to the MP and her party. A public servant might not be ideal. Doubtless the party does want its member to be assisted by one of their own but it wants additional funding for it.

Either way, the expense is a charge on the public. It is a cost that most people who heard Ms Mathers' maiden speech on Wednesday may consider well worthwhile. As she described her path to politics through environmental causes, she gave the legislature an insight into life with a disability and she stood as an example of what the disabled can achieve with help.

She was also forthright in arguing for their help. Her stated goals included captioning of Parliament's television coverage for deaf voters and audio description for the blind. Schools, she said, should provide sign interpreters at parent-teacher interviews so deaf parents could discuss their children's progress.

Watched by deaf people in the public gallery, she said it was an honour to be representing that community, which means she represents its disability, not the range of its political views. The taste she gave Parliament of her own views suggests they invite plenty of opposition. Her background in environmental campaigns will have accustomed her to robust debate.

Other MPs will not be as accustomed to debate with someone who is at a sensory disadvantage. They will need to ignore it and treat her like any other adversary if they are to play their part in allowing the disabled to participate in normal political life.

Ms Mathers was not afraid to join the criticism of Parliament's provision for her this week. Others were reluctant to wonder where the limits of support properly lie. Disability issues are now very much alive.

- NZ Herald

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