Disabled people must speak for ourselves. Internet NZ recruitment process shows lack of disability confidence
Update, 3 July 2020
I can report a satisfactory outcome to many of the matters I raised in this post.
I have now received an apology from the Internet NZ President, Jamie Baddeley, acknowledging that the language in the ad did not reflect how Internet NZ acts and feels regarding disabled people and pledging that processes like this will better live up to the organisation's values in future.
The organisation's Appointed Council member process will explicitly take into account whether the Council has the lived experience of disabled New Zealanders around its table. That will be reflected when they next update the Council Diversity and Skills Matrix following this year’s AGM.
Internet NZ will investigate all councillors and key staff undertaking disability confidence training.
Any member of Internet NZ may question candidates for Council before voting, and I intend to do that to find out how aware they are of matters relating to disabled people.
Internet NZ have declined to rerun the recruitment process. I believe advocacy involves give and take. Given that my fundamental point about the flaws in this process have now been acknowledged and apologised for, I accept this decision and want to draw a line under this process.
I am pleased to have had these issues acknowledged and apologised for, which takes courage. I look forward to supporting Internet NZ in their vital work in future, and encourage all disabled people who have an interest in an open, inclusive Internet to sign up and support their work.
After a lot of thought and with internal options now exhausted, I have decided to chronicle my experience as a disabled person applying for recently advertised directors' positions with Internet NZ. I do so because I believe Internet NZ, in not restarting the process due to the different way it is treating two disadvantaged minorities, is damaging its moral authority to speak out on digital inclusion.
I believe Internet NZ has not met its own usual high standards through this process. When alerted to this, the President has failed to remedy the matter.
I am calling on Internet NZ to acknowledge and apologise for the flaws in the process I will outline below and rerun the recruitment. I hope Internet NZ members will write to the President to request this.
This lengthy post explains my concern and outlines why I think this issue is important.
Given that disabled people have such a low profile in New Zealand, I'll start by putting this issue in context.
Setting the scene
Many members of minority or disadvantaged groups experience discrimination regularly. Sometimes it is intentional, sometimes it is institutional, sometimes it is genuinely unintended and stemming from ignorance. For a disabled person, it can range from being at a restaurant and having your nondisabled companion being asked "what would he like to eat", to acts that can have a detrimental impact on your future.
I've been an advocate for disability issues all my life, particularly on matters affecting blind people since I am blind myself, as well as hearing impaired. Age and experience have taught me not to sweat the small stuff, to be selective about the things I escalate. If you don't develop a thick skin and learn to let some things go, you can become very bitter.
I love life and am a proud kiwi. However, New Zealand has much progress still to make before disabled people here are truly included. When every person who lives in Aotearoa can maximise our full potential, we as a country will have maximised our full potential.
Several recent events have created what I believe is a tipping point, where disabled people are no longer willing to confine these issues to quiet, cosy internal discussions. That strategy hasn't delivered the goods.
The Government recently published an extensive review of health and disability support services marred by lacklustre consultation with disabled people and no one from the disability sector on the group who wrote the review. There is widespread anger about this. Democracy requires the participation of the governed.
This week has seen the publication of a report, "Making New Zealand Disability Rights Real". The opening paragraph of the Executive Summary is powerful.
"New Zealand has a mixed record when it comes to the rights of disabled people. Although we do some things well, there is still a great deal of work required to remove barriers stopping disabled people from participating in society on an equal basis."
Digital inclusion for disabled people is one area where I believe New Zealand is behind many countries with which we like to compare ourselves.
The cost of Internet access and expensive assistive technology can create digital poverty for disabled people, particularly given that unemployment is rampant among our community. 69% of nondisabled people are employed, but only 23% of disabled people are employed.
COVID-19 has provided a dramatic demonstration of the benefits the Internet can have for people with a rrange of impairments. Those who couldn't shop online due to lack of access to technology and who didn't have good support systems in place were left feeling vulnerable and anxious. With so much social discourse and information being online, lack of access to the online world can marginalise disabled people even further.
So, it is after considerable reflection and in this context that I believe the matter I want to raise is important.
The flawed Internet NZ directors' recruitment process
About Internet NZ
Internet NZ is an organisation I have regarded highly until this incident.
• It facilitates and guards a free, open Internet in New Zealand.
• It promotes inclusion and accessibility, having recently published a five-point plan for digital inclusion during the lockdown.
• It offers community grants that promote greater participation by digitally disadvantaged groups.
People look to Internet NZ for advice and to be an exemplar. However, a recent recruitment process which may still be ongoing has applied two separate standards to groups too often on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Between 2013 and 2018, I operated my own company offering advice both locally and internationally on accessibility, as well as producing audio and electronic titles to help blind people make the most of the digital age. I have worked for a US-based Internet start-up and founded another, in addition to having worked for two of the world's leading blindness technology companies.
Mindful of my background, a colleague recently pointed out an advertisement on Seek in which Internet NZ was seeking two directors. Several skillsets were highlighted as being advantageous, including lived experience of MÄÂtauranga MÄÂori, and experience of working with disabled people.
In every case where I have mentioned this discrepancy to a disabled friend or colleague, they instantly see the problem. Why is it that Internet NZ rightly wishes direct lived experience of MÄÂtauranga MÄÂori, who have far too frequently been spoken for by others or neglected entirely, yet in the same job advertisement will settle for someone who has worked with disabled people? One correctly requires a need for direct lived experience, the other will settle for second-hand knowledge based on learning and observation.
This is important because in addition to an increasing determination to see "nothing about us without us" made real, anecdotal evidence suggests that disabled people are in general significantly underrepresented at governance and senior leadership level. For Internet NZ to use such different language towards two disadvantaged groups suggests a fundamental lack of disability confidence.
Had the reverse been true, and the ad had called for lived experience of disability and just experience of working with Maori, I feel sure the ad would have been amended before the closing period. I have worked with many Maori co-workers in my career, yet that in no way qualifies me to take the place of someone with lived experience. The same applies to disability.
In recent years, my work has required me to spend a lot of time overseas. It was always my intention to offer to contribute to Internet NZ. Now that I am New Zealand-based again and the ad specifically mentioned disability, I decided to apply for one of the positions despite my concerns regarding the inconsistency.
I had two choices. I could have written to Sheffield, the company handling the recruitment, pointing out how differently Maori and disabled people were being treated in the same ad, telling them that I wouldn't apply unless the disparity between the two disadvantaged groups was addressed. Alternatively, I could have written a letter of application which contained a reference to my concern, and used it as an example at an interview of why it was so important to have someone with a strong grounding in disability confidence on the Council. I chose the latter option which seemed to me the most constructive and giving the organisation the benefit of the doubt.
In my letter of application, I wrote, " While the advertisement only calls for experience of working with disabled people but lived experience of MÄÂtauranga MÄÂori, I would sincerely hope that an actual disabled person with lived experience would be preferred over someone who can merely share secondhand experience. I've been totally blind since birth and am aware every day of the enabling power of technology in general, and the Internet in particular on people with a variety of impairments."
While I think the strategy was the right one, it fell apart because I was not shortlisted for an interview
My own candidacy is secondary, and indeed if Internet NZ finally does what I believe to be the right thing and re-advertises the positions calling for lived experience of both disability and MÄÂtauranga MÄÂori, I will not be a candidate.
Having learned I was not going to be given the opportunity to use the interview process to further expand on the discrepancy and the need for disability confidence, I raised my concerns with Sheffield, copying the Internet NZ President and a member of the Council with whom I have worked over many years. I expressed the view that in having treated two minorities so differently, discrimination under the Human Rights Act had occurred and asked that the decision be reconsidered. I knew at this stage I was unlikely to be appointed, but hoped that an interview might at least allow me to explain why this matter is so serious for the organisation's credibility.
Six days later On 30 June I received a substantive reply from Sheffield, stating that Internet NZ is about to appoint a Chief Advisor – Maori, so ensuring Council had access to someone who could assist it to govern appropriately in this area was important. I am truly delighted to hear about the establishment of this position and congratulate Internet NZ on the initiative. However it does not explain or excuse why a statement couldn't have been included that specifically welcomed applications from disabled people and not just those working with disabled people.
I was told that my point about the importance of calling for lived experience was acknowledged and would be taken into account in the future. This is sophistry. Acknowledging a point is not the same as acknowledging fault with the process of the validity of the point, apologising for it and pledging to do better. Taking it into account doesn't guarantee change.
I replied to the Sheffield communication stating that my issues had not been addressed, requesting that the process be restarted, this time calling for lived experience of both minorities.
I eventually received an email from the Internet NZ President, Jamie Baddeley, in which he quoted from the Human Rights Act and asserting that no discrimination has occurred in this case. He correctly points out that the Act says that it is unlawful for any person concerned with procuring employment for other persons or procuring employees for any employer to treat any person seeking employment differently from other persons in the same or substantially similar circumstances by reason of any of the prohibited grounds of discrimination.
In the context of discrimination and digital inclusion, it seems to me that there are many similar elements to the challenges and systemic exclusion disabled people and Maori face. Of course we should respect the place of Maori as Tangata Whenua, but both Maori and disabled people are often on the wrong side of many statistics. It seems to me that if you are seeking lived experience from one disadvantaged group while in the same ad seeking a lower standard of knowledge about (not from) another group, that is a substantive difference that discriminates against disabled applicants.
I was told in this letter that my concerns were "misplaced" and that he had the advantage of knowing who the other candidates are while I do not. It was at this point that I realised I must write this post.
While it is always a disappointment to apply for a position and not make it to the next round, the email makes no reference to the substance of the principles that are far more important than any individual applicant, other than to say that he has instructed senior management to take this matter seriously and that an Internet NZ representative will contact me to discuss engagement with disabled people.
If my concerns are misplaced, why is it necessary to have senior management pay any attention to them?
Further, this answer represents an abdication of responsibility on behalf of the President of Internet NZ. The Council performs a governance function, not an operational one. While the President may have delegated some of the mechanics of recruitment to operational staff, responsibility for the double standards evident in this process rest squarely with Council as the governing body. There has been no apology, no acknowledgement of any flaw, so he clearly thinks it's OK for one minority to speak for itself, while another potentially has others speaking for it. This is unfair, inappropriate, happens all too often and it has to stop.
What I am seeking
• The process to be restarted, this time with an ad that calls for lived experience of all minorities mentioned in the advertisement. So as not to create a distraction around my own personal candidacy, I would not be a candidate in the new process.
• An apology and acknowledgement that the process was flawed and does not portray Internet NZ in a good light. This has tarnished Internet NZ's moral authority to speak authentically on inclusion.
• All Internet NZ directors who have not already done so to undertake disability confidence training.
• Internet NZ members to let the President know that direct experience of disadvantage, both digital and otherwise, matters.
- Current candidates for the Internet NZ Council make a statement regarding disability confidence, disability inclusion and what that means to them.