Áine Kelly-Costello is a blind University of Auckland student studying Honours in Spanish, alongside French courses. She divides the rest of her time between her passions for music (mainly Celtic and Classical), languages, quality catch-ups with friends, and advocacy both for disability rights and action on climate change. Áine has written the following piece on why accessibility is important to her.

Consider these two personal anecdotes.

1. I’m blind and I’m catching a bus home from University. I know where to catch the bus, and I also know the route to walk home from my bus-stop at the other end. Hopping on the bus, I ask the driver to let me know when we get to my stop, providing the exact street corner. The driver doesn’t know where my bus stop is even though I’m sure it is on this bus route. I sit down anyway, having asked the driver to please look it up, as I’ll get lost if I get off at the wrong stop. The driver offers a non-committal grunt and we are on our way. The driver tells me I’m at my stop what feels like a little too soon, but I can’t be sure. I repeat the street corner and try to quickly check my phone, which is hard because he didn’t give me warning, so now everyone is waiting. The driver is getting more adamant it’s correct, so I get off the bus. Now, I have a good look (listen) to the map and discover I’m one bus stop too early. I get home in decent time, only thanks to the help of a kind stranger with a car.

2. I’ve been selected by my university to attend some sustainability leadership training. I ask where it is and the University staff member responding remembers I’m blind and offers to walk with me there as it’s about ten minutes away from the bulk of the campus. I gladly accept. A couple days later, I receive an email from another staff member (let’s call her Sally), noting that she mentioned to the presenter that I’m blind and the presenter has some visual material she will need to go over quite quickly. Sally takes the initiative to offer to run through these slides with me before the event and I also gratefully accept. At the beginning of the training day, Sally introduces me to the presenter who, it turns out, is keen to learn about how she can best describe her slides to make sure blind people are best able to interact with their visual elements. I’m more than happy to note down suggestions throughout the day, although thanks to the foresight of Sally, who ran through the slides with me, I barely get lost anyway.

A truly accessible Aotearoa is full of people like Sally who seek to honour their individual responsibility as part of a collective effort to ensure people with disabilities or other access needs feel fully included. A question we ask ourselves regularly in the advocacy space, I think, is “what is the most effective way of bringing more New Zealanders to this point?”. But I would rather focus on these two questions:

What methods will help us change mindsets? and

Why is each one effective and how can they complement each other? Below, I’ll do some cherry-picking, based on the areas I happen to know best.

The Blind Foundation gave me the opportunity to participate in some accessibility advocacy training last year. This lead me to taking up an internship with the Blind Foundation this summer, campaigning under the Access Matters banner for new accessibility legislation. Legislation can help make Aotearoa truly accessible because it has the potential to address the systemic roots of not being accessible. One of those roots surrounds the need to address what we, as people with disabilities, believe the concept of “accessibility” means and why access matters to us. Legislation would give us a platform to not only put our views in writing but ensure that all parties needing to comply are then aware of that collective view. Another root involves the need to push accessibility up the agendas of organisations and businesses and we can achieve this by putting deadlines on the writing and implementation of minimum accessibility standards.

An additional channel of advocacy, important to me, is that accomplished through Disabled People’s Organisations.  Here we, as disabled people, advocate on multiple issues for outcomes which will improve our quality of life. For instance, I am currently advocating via the Auckland Branch of Blind Citizens New Zealand for our local public library’s EBook service OverDrive to be more accessible. Finally, I, along with my fellow citizens with disabilities, spend no insignificant part of my life explaining why I need access to be improved andoften why that access is important or stating what I would miss out on without it.

This is a snapshot of just a few of the advocacy channels which seek to make Aotearoa truly accessible. It is often no easy feat to work out where we fit in among the numerous access barriers clamouring for our attention. As individuals and organisations, we may all have different priorities in terms of how we visualise creating an accessible country.  However, ultimately we would all, I think, like to see people with disabilities spend more time living the life they choose and less time removing unnecessary access barriers. I am proud to play some small part in advocating for this change.  I am grateful to the Blind Foundation for their tremendous support in empowering me to become a more thoughtful, strategic, and—I hope—effective accessibility advocate. Access matters — it will matter to me every day for the rest of my life — and I am excited to think that my actions can be harnessed to help communicate this message to all New Zealanders.