An introduction to engaging with older and disabled people

Disabled and older people face considerable barriers to inclusion within community and other engagement processes.


Who are we talking about?

The numbers of people who face barriers may surprise you.

  • Older people are increasing in numbers. They are 13% of the population at the time of writing and increasing in number with higher rate of disability as the population ages
  • 20% of the population have one or more disabilities
  • 40% of the working age population have poor literacy and 20% have English as a second language.

Together they are a sizable proportion of any community.

Taking engagement seriously

  • Don’t expect to be spoon fed – People get a bit tired of the constant question and the expectation that disabled people will always be available and willing to volunteer to answer questions on your terms. They get a bit tired, grumpy and overloaded just as you do.
    • Do discover that many of the problems you want to know about have already been described to a high standard and at great length by disabled people. Read the latest information produced by disabled people. We recommend Disability Rights in Aotearoa New Zealand 2012   by the Convention Coalition, a coalition of disabled people’s organisations. But there are many more.
    • Do learn a bit about disabled people and their representative organisations, which may be quite different from their service providers. Service providers have their own legitimate perspectives but cannot speak for disabled people. Most disabled people’s organisations have web sites.
  • Do your homework. Check up on what is already known about engaging with disabled people within your organisation. What structures, networks and processes are already established? Ask your colleagues. Check out what your organisation has done in the past. What worked? What didn’t?
  • Don’t expect the Office for Disability issues (ODI) to be everything to everyone. There is information about engaging with disabled people on their web site, but the Office was originally established to do policy work. Other organisations have responsibilities to disabled people too, and leaving everything to the ODI creates the ghetto disabled people want to avoid.
  • Do read the CRPD and learn about your organisation’s responsibilities towards disabled people. Do use other information in the public arena, the census and disability survey information from Statistics New Zealand, the CRPD and the Disability Strategy..
  • Do watch your disability language. Keep it respectful.

The absolute basics

One of the difficulties of engaging with the diverse community of disabled people is its “siloed” nature. Disabled people have been divided into very distinct disability groups. The result is different services and different approaches to advocacy by and for groups of people with different impairments. Unfortunately this separation can create barriers to inclusion.

  • Take a pan-disability approach incorporating the principles of universal design and make information fully accessible to everyone, not just an ad hoc approach to one or two groups who are the most vocal. It doesn’t have to mean that one size fits all either. Different people with different impairments will have different needs.
  • Those who wish to engage must know the community of disabled people and their representative organisations. Building good relationships before the event will help. That means good planning in advance – planning for real inclusion within the engagement process. 
  • Listen to disabled people and their organisations..
  • Know the difference between organisations “of” and “for” disabled people and how and why they differ
  • Don’t make assumptions about how disabled people might behave or react in particular circumstances.
  • Recognise that capacity building and education on the issues involved may be necessary before the event for disabled people and others
  • Meetings and gatherings must be fully accessible.
  • Implement accessible processes so disabled people can participate.
  • Engaging through individual advocacy and reference groups will not be the only answer. A variety of communication channels and engagement strategies are needed to reach everyone.
  • You will find some useful information in other posts on Low Visionary or elsewhere on this site. 

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