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Posted by Philip Patston on 16 July 2010, 1:07 pm in , , , , ,

Rights versus competence - two very different things

Freelance journalist Karl du Fresne's recent blog post continues a theme he began in a column in The Dominion Post in February 2008, where he wrote that "a law change requiring intellectually disabled workers to be paid the legal minimum wage was a triumph of human rights ideology over common sense."

So, what's his latest blog about – the inappropriateness of an ideological and statutory change, or the incompetence of one of NZ's largest service providers to competently and progressively respond to that change? I think he is confusing the two and I'm not sure whether he's intentionally doing that – in order to try and argue the point – or not.

His argument as it stands could be like saying we shouldn't allow women to vote because some choose not to; or we shouldn't allow same-sex marriages because some will end in divorce. Based on the democratic capitalistic system we are all beholden to, the repeal of the DPEP Act was consistent with the notion of a fair and just society.

There are many non-disabled people who do not value money as others but we don't restrict their access to bartering power (money) because of that.

IHC is, on the whole, an inefficient, ineffective monolith staffed by good people who work there for the right reasons. But it constantly makes poor decisions because it has reached the size where it cannot make good ones.

Du Fresne says himself:

"It wasn’t a question of IHC’s sheltered workshops no longer being economically viable, because other providers of similar services, having obtained the necessary exemptions from the minimum wage, continue to operate.

"The insensitivity with which aspects of the change were handled by IHC is extraordinary."

To marry that with the accusation of "a rising clamour for disabled people’s rights ... cheered on by disabled activists" borders on bigotry and is disrespectful of many generations of "well-educated, articulate people with physical and sensory rather than intellectual disabilities" (and non-disabled people) who have fought long and hard to increase fairness and justice to all disabled people, regardless of impairment.

I totally agree that sitting idle on a benefit, or spending "time in empty, purposeless non-activities euphemistically labelled 'community participation'” is demeaning and wasteful. But the issued is with the current labour market – it is too inflexible to ensure opportunity for everyone. Those with capacity or culture that doesn't match the mainstream labour pool require resources to survive, but there is no reason why they couldn't negotiate a civic contribution in return for  state assistance that matches their capability. These would be "designed jobs", created to suit a unique set of attributes and skill-set. It's not like everything in society gets done, so there's plenty of scope to design some unique civic contributions.

The opportunity lost with law reform and ideological progress, such as deinstitutionalisation and the DPEP Act repeal, is a progressive response that adds value to people's lives. This is seldom if ever achieved for disabled people (especially those with intellectual impairment) for lack of two things:

1. The ability of concerned adults to allow people to take supported and managed risks, for fear of the consequences.

2. Investment in creative, innovative solutions that accommodate diversity.

In the absence of these things, the situation only gets worse. Going back won't make them better.