The family legend – or family joke – is that my grandfather never became an MP because my grandmother refused to be married to one. Nevertheless, he maintained a keen and stubborn interest in both national and local level politics his whole life, often contributing to local board and council matters, paying litigiously close attention to the town planning of Auckland. It makes sense then, that – well before I could vote in our national elections – he took me along to my first political event. He figured a ‘Meet the Candidates’ event for the Epsom electorate would be just my kind of thing. He was right.
The Mount Eden Maungawhau Village Hall is an unassuming space – all except the Ten Commandments emblazoned on the far wall, a memento from the building’s previous life as a church hall. I gingerly parked my wheelchair in the aisle alongside my grandfather’s seat. From the front row, I sat enthralled as candidates danced and gesticulated beneath them. As each election promise was made I wondered how many ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ would be kept and broken in making them a reality.
I was hooked by it – the theatre of politics. And yet there was something missing. It was not until a few years later that I knew what it was.
2011 marked a few personal milestones: my last year of high school, my eighteenth birthday, I wrote my first play - performed a year later by an Auckland Uni student called Chloe Swarbrick who I thought would be in theatre for a while. Importantly, it was my first election.
There was a national milestone too: it was the year that Mojo Mathers was elected, New Zealand’s first Deaf MP. At the time I did not know much about Deafness or Deaf culture. However, as a disabled young woman there was something that resonated. I listened to her maiden speech, I followed her fight for the access and support she needed to do the job she had been elected to do. Politics with its aura of importance could be just as inaccessible as the rest of our everyday lives.
But I felt hopeful. I saw someone who more closely reflected me than anyone else I was seeing in politics at the time or had seen before. She spoke on a national stage about experiences I recognised.
I realised concretely that politics could be a place for people like me.
Of course, like all change, one person is only the beginning. It will take everyone to truly make politics a space disabled people can work in and contribute to without first facing hurdles.
The first step towards realising this was made on the 16th of May. The Election Access Fund Bill passed its first reading with unanimous support. Now the responsibility of Chloe Swarbrick, the Bill is also a legacy for Mojo. It works to remove some of the barriers Mojo faced in office. It establishes an independent Fund via the Electoral Commission. The Fund can be used to cover the disability and accessibility costs faced by disabled and Deaf candidates standing for election. NGO’s wanting to make election events accessible can use it to cover these costs. Finally, political parties can access it to make it easier for disabled people to engage with them.
It is the first of many moves towards a more representative and accessible democracy where disabled people are fully involved, their voices heard.