JUST GOOD BUSINESS CASE STUDY : The cost of disability

There are days when Minnie Baragwanath’s usual path to work is beset with difficulties most people would never experience.
“Because I live with disability I see it and get it every single day. I struggle for different reasons to cross roads – if the little audio signal isn’t going, I can just get stuck there on the pavement. It’s cellular. I live and breathe those frustrations…”
Born with rare type of vision impairment that wasn’t formally diagnosed until she was 15, Baragwanath learned early about adapting to world that kept throwing up new and demanding challenges.
It’s what makes her such passionate advocate for the need to create an environment in which those who experience some sort of an impairment – whether related to mobility, sensory input or intellectual ability – are not excluded from community participation because of it.
“People might have an impairment – but it’s the environment that renders them disabled,” says Baragwanath.
That’s message she’s been spreading through whole plethora of means – whether at local government planning and strategy levels or via conferences, community pressure groups and media – since she was appointed programme adviser, disability, at Auckland City Council Community Services back in 2001.
The first person to hold such role in New Zealand local government, she has had big hand in helping put disability issues on the map – not just in Auckland but throughout New Zealand. Whether the focus is on planning major event – like next year’s World Cup, or daily health and employment issues, the mantra for Baragwanath is 100 percent accessibility. And people are listening.
“A lot of it is not about needing to reinvent processes but about getting people to understand why you do certain things and the value of it. Then it’s completely logical. Say kerb isn’t cut for wheelchair access and because of that, young person going to job interview can’t get up it. Well cutting the kerb might cost $200, but the cost to society of that person’s inability to get job runs into millions. It goes from loss of income and tax revenue to the loss of mental health related to social exclusion.
“Then on the flip side, you could look at the potential contribution those people make to society and it’s enormous – this is highly innovative group of people used to problem solving and thinking creatively on daily basis. What if we harnessed that and used it as strength? Imagine what we could do with that.”
It’s sizable pool of talent she’s talking about – 77,000 people in central Auckland and around 250,000 in the wider region have some kind of impairment. More than half of those fall into the mobility category (54 percent), one third in the hearing and 11 percent vision.
“We could look at what answers this group might have for our aging population – the demographic time bomb countries like Japan are already dealing with,” says Baragwanath. “Baby boomers are big demographic and although they’d never call themselves disabled, their abilities do change with age. I’m really interested in innovative leadership and how that relates to economic development. It’s where I think we can add value as council – and lot of that comes from personal experience.”
Born with condition called Stargatz (stargazer), Baragwanath was initially just diagnosed as short-sighted, but her visual impairment was an uncommon juvenile form of macular degeneration that affects the central part of her vision.
“Also it deteriorates rapidly during adolescence, so I couldn’t read books or see things on the blackboard and though I’d started off playing sports, I had to stop because the coaches didn’t think I’d be able to manage. I couldn’t even recognise people’s faces. And there was no way I could drive.”
With supportive mother reading and recording her textbooks (“they were peppered with comments like ‘whoops, just spilt the tea’,” laughs Baragwanath), she earned Bachelor degree in English Literature from Massey and, later, Bachelor in Communication Studies from AUT. In between she travelled and went into business with what was possibly New Zealand’s first mobile coffee cart.
She remembers the despair of walking into her first computer class, turning the machine on and realising she couldn’t see single thing on the screen.
“There was no adaptive software then. Even now I have to buy it separately. The software I use with our standard work computer is nearly $3000. In my first job I had to wait six months before getting approval (and government funding) for software I needed to do the job. I was just lucky to have such supportive employer.”
At the time she was TV researcher/presenter for the Inside Out disability series. When told about the council job in 2001, Baragwanath had to get her mum to read the job description before successfully applying for what was initially six-month contract.
It proved turning point.
“It wasn’t easy for me to get work and I completely understand the barriers to employment and how they impact on you. So we could be running whole lot of fabulous community development initiatives but it’s still key that people get work.
“The greatest thing that made the biggest difference to my life is having job because then I can be part of my community. I can go somewhere each day and feel I have purpose. Once I started earning an income, I could buy my own home. I can afford to buy the computer equipment I need and not wait until the government decides whether I’m worthy of it. We don’t place enough emphasis on that side of the puzzle.”
But things are changing.
Through her work with the council, Baragwanath has ensured all its various arms – from roading and traffic to library services and the zoo – know what disability means for Aucklanders and for their own work programmes. It was huge exercise but through relentless communication and relationship building, whole bunch of protocols, policies and best practice guidelines have now been established. And these are increasingly being taken up by other local and central government bodies.
“We did lot of work around physical auditing because that was very tangible – so that auditing was applied to all our libraries, community facilities, swimming pools, rec centres etc and programme to implement those recommendations started.”
She also made conscious decision to undertake the post-graduate diploma in Economic Development at AUT two years ago as she saw it as essential to her effectiveness as an advocate for disability.
“Most people don’t ever think of disability through an economic development lens, they apply charity or medical view which is terribly limiting.”
She’s proud that Auckland City is on the front edge of change.
“I think we should feel good because we have helped trigger disability programmes all across New Zealand that have drawn inspiration from our programme.
“For instance, we’ve developed guidelines for accessible information and communication that will hopefully ensure everything we send out to customers and citizens in the new Auckland Council is accessible.”
After completing the Leadership New Zealand (LNZ) one-year programme in 2007, Baragwanath has been working with former LNZ chief executive Lesley Slade, diversity consultant Philip Patson, AUT, IHC and Yes Ability to develop the “Stepping Up” leadership programme based around the LNZ template, but specifically designed for people from the disability community. It will take in its first cohort next year.
Also in the offing – major new economic development programme based around disability issues.
“It’s about how accessible business is good business,” explains Baragwanath. “It’s being led by Auckland City and we’re partnering with Tourism Auckland, Disability Resource Centre and Squiz on working with businesses around accessible tourism. Many people don’t realise that baby boomers, often with higher rates of disability, are our largest and most affluent tourist group – yet we’re not meeting their access needs.

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