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Over the break we had a win. Kiwi Robert Martin became the first person with a learning (intellectual) disability to be appointed to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, saying “people with a learning disability can do anything if they have the opportunities.” About time! My happiness was tempered by the fact that in 2016 there are two worlds for people with disabilities. Disabilities Rights Commissioner, Paul Gibson, celebrated the appointment: “[Robert] smashed through the ceilings and walls of the institutions that kept him locked away for most of his early years.” However morale raising this is, Gibson also knows the fight is not over as the commission has been awarded funding by the UN High Commission to investigate the use of restraint and seclusion, (read solitary confinement), in New Zealand.
One of the cases prompting this is that of Ashley Peacock, a man with autism and mental illness who spends around 22 hours a day in seclusion. He has experienced similar treatment for the past five years—conditions have only served to make things worse for him. The result of two parallel life-long struggles, Robert Martin takes up his post and Ashley Peacock will finally have his case heard in the High Court. It occurs to me that their marked difference in circumstance is rooted in the recognition of their personhood.
When Sam Lotu-Ilga responded to Kevin Hague in parliament about Ashley’s mistreatment he characterized Ashley as violent and a danger to others, without fully acknowledging the complexity of his needs. The suggestion of danger seems to be a convenient way to disengage with the way the system has failed a man described by his parents as gentle and sensitive in a context where he is not experiencing sensory overload. Ashley himself has, reportedly, been overcome at the rare opportunities he is given to do “what normal people do.”
If we are truly striving for the social inclusion of all people with disabilities it seems a wonder that we only include those for whom the social world is unthreatening and simple to navigate and we find this acceptable.