On the Job: Erin Gough — Human Rights Specialist

A valuable advocate for people living with disability, Erin Gough, 25, talks about election year challenges.

On the job Erin Gough

Two years ago, when Erin Gough was studying her law professionals in Christchurch, she had to be assisted up and down a set of stairs to attend the course which was held in a “completely inaccessible building”.

Experiences like this mean Erin’s work advocating for disability-rights at the Human Rights Commission doesn’t stop when she leaves the office.

“I often face human rights issues myself,” she says, “and experience the barriers we are trying to reduce”. This motivates her to advocate for changes, she says, noting that not everyone has her opportunities. “I have a responsibility to do my bit to ensure their voices are heard and their rights are promoted and protected.”

When Erin was a child she immigrated to New Zealand from South Africa. She grew up in Christchurch — her interest in advocacy was prompted by the earthquakes — and moved to Wellington two years ago to take up her current role. An issue that she feels passionately about is accessibility in all forms (built environment, transport, information) “because everyone deserves to be able to fully participate in their communities”.

“There is so much talk about the housing crisis but very little about the barriers disabled people face within this, and with an ageing population it’s only going to become more of an issue.”

New Zealand has a history of considering the needs of people with disabilities as an afterthought when developing policy, she says. This leads to costly adjustments when projects are completed, such as retrofitting buildings so that they are accessible. If people with disabilities are considered, consulted and collaborated with from the outset, she says, the benefits are “massive” for people at all stages of life — whether they are disabled, a parent with a pram, someone with a temporary injury, or an elderly person.

Having pride in being disabled is important to Erin who is “sick of people telling disabled people we have less value simply because we are different.

“I am who I am not in spite of but because of my disability and I consider it a positive part of my identity that has opened a lot of doors for me, and enabled me to meet a hugely diverse group of amazing people.”

While mental health, housing, and income support dominate the election,  Erin says disability isn’t seen as a priority issue.

Further to this, people often face barriers to being able to vote due to inaccessible information and limited voting methods.

“An example of this is that many electioneering events do not provide New Zealand Sign Language interpreters and many party or candidate videos and online election debates are not captioned, meaning the deaf community are unable to be fully informed.”

People are unable to vote independently and in secret, she says, instead they have to rely on an assistant to cast their vote for them. While some progress has been made (last election telephone dictation voting was available for the first time) there is a long way to go.

“Part of this is also about representation. Currently very few candidates and MPs identify as disabled which means Parliament is nowhere near being representative of the population where one in four people identify as disabled.”