3. New Zealand's response to international directives

New Zealand is a signatory to both the UNCROC and the UNCRPD and therefore is expected to have policy and practice in place that makes provision for the voice of children with disabilities to be heard. New Zealand legislation and policy that relates to both the Conventions themselves and the voices of children with disabilities can be found in the Children, Young Persons and Their Family Act 1989 where section 5(d) refers to (Footnote 1):

…the principle that consideration should be given to the wishes of the child or young person, so far as those wishes can reasonably be ascertained, and that those wishes should be given such weight as is appropriate in the circumstances, having regard to the age, maturity, and culture of the child or young person.

A strengthening of the intent of section 5(d) can be seen in The Children’s Commissioner’s Act 2003, the New Zealand Disability Strategy 2001 (Dalziel, 2001) and the more recent New Zealand Disability Action Plan 2014 (Office for Disability Issues, 2014).

Under section 14 of The Children’s Commissioner’s Act 2003:

(1) The Commissioner must develop means of consulting with children from time to time for the purpose of ensuring the views of children are taken into account in the exercise or performance of the Commissioner’s functions (other than the Commissioner’s function under section 12(1)(a) or section 13(1)(a).

(2) The Commissioner must, where practicable, consult with children, using means developed under subsection (1), before the Commissioner makes any significant recommendation in the exercise or performance of the Commissioner’s functions under section 12(1)(f), (g), (i), or (l) or under section 13(1)(d), or (e).

Section 12 of the Act is predominantly about the general functions of the Commissioner and the sections above relate broadly to advocacy and court or welfare proceedings. Section 13 relates to functions in relation to the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989.

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner, set up in response to the 2003 Act, has developed projects and guidelines aimed at hearing children’s voices (see http://www.occ.org.nz/listening2kids/resources/ ). This website offers a comprehensive list of resources from other countries that can be adapted for use in New Zealand. Projects demonstrating the Commissioner’s Office adoption of strategies to include young people can be seen in the following projects. From 2003 until 2014 twelve young people were recruited at two yearly intervals to form an advisory group, providing advice to the Commissioner and raising issues that they deemed important. More recently the Voices Project uses online surveys conducted through schools, with a first test survey going out in 2015 (see http://www.occ.org.nz/our-work/engaging-with-children/ ). In addition, Listening2Kids is an online resource, aimed at government agencies but also available to organisations, providing suggestions and practical advice to assist them to engage with children regarding policy and practice. Whilst the Office of the Children’s Commissioner notes the need to include children with disabilities in these projects it is not clear that any projects have done so to date.

The Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Youth Development published two documents aimed at including the voices of children and young people about the same time that the Commissioner’s office was being set up (Ministry of Social Development, 2004; Ministry of Youth Development, 2009), the 2009 document being a revision of that published in 2003. Guidelines for including children with disabilities in the Ministry of Social Development booklet were limited to two considerations, that is:

  • There is a range of disabilities – physical, intellectual and psychiatric
  • Some children with disabilities need the support, care or interpretation of adults or other children, such as a sibling or a young adult who works with them. (p.18)

Six guidelines are suggested to support participation:

  • Recognising that some children with disabilities may choose to be in groups with others of the same ethnicity, age or gender
  • Including children with disabilities in decision-making on the same range of topics as other children
  • Providing information well in advance and in appropriate formats
  • Working with people skilled in communicating with children with disabilities
  • Encouraging participation within a physically and emotionally safe setting
  • Identifying any physical barriers and removing or minimising them. (p.19)

Similar points are noted for youth with disabilities in the Ministry of Youth Development document.

Despite these initiatives to encourage the participation of young people, Freeman and Aitken-Rose (2005) found that planners for most local bodies in New Zealand were not ready to consider a role for children. Where children might be consulted the topic was most commonly recreation and youth councils were the predominant method for the relatively few bodies that actually engaged young people at all.

The New Zealand Disability Strategy, published in 2001, is currently undergoing review. In 2001 it was recognised under Objective 13.7 that children with disabilities and youth should be involved in decision-making, however the emphasis of the strategy was broad and focused on changing society in line with the social model of disability. The more recent Disability Action Plan requires the direct input of disabled people’s organisations in policy and legislation (Office for Disability Issues, 2014). Whilst the move to put disabled people at the centre of developing policy about them is progress, there is no clear statement with regard to children. Indeed, the majority of references to children are related to their protection and safety. Research with children with disabilities in the United Kingdom (Davis, Watson, Corker, & Shakespeare, 2003; Lewis, 2004) demonstrated that ambiguity exists between policy that expects children to be actively involved in decision-making whilst putting in place legislation and rules that create protectionist environments in the interest of their safety. This suggests that there is more to providing a voice than might initially be apparent. Furthermore, a small qualitative New Zealand study conducted in 2004 as part of a wider multinational study about children’s sense of citizenship noted that, while children were apparently gaining greater voice in this country, their rights were being undermined by the level of violence against them (Taylor, Smith, & Gollop, 2009). In other words, there are complex contextual factors that can be seen to interact between valuing the child’s voice, as proposed in the two conventions, and ensuring the environment is supportive for all children so that their contribution is meaningful and actually making a difference in the lives of their fellow citizens. Interestingly, the children in the multinational study, of which Taylor and Smith’s research was a part, recognised that their decisions should be incorporated within a relational model that allowed for appropriate levels of agency. In other words, they understood that, while they might influence decisions that were made, other people who had an interest in those decisions would also be part of the process and have an influence. Ideally, in a relational model the parties reach mutual agreement.

The Ministry of Youth Development has initiated and continues to provide a number of avenues for youth to participate in decisions within their community (see website www.myd.govt.nz/young-people/ ). In 2011 the Ministry led a survey of young, disabled people to establish their viewpoints so that they could be included in the report that the Office of Disability Issues was preparing for the United Nations in accordance with the requirements of signatories to the UNCRPD (Ministry of Youth Development, 2011). Aimed at young people 12 to 24 years of age, the survey was administered electronically, with an option to complete a hard copy. Parents were able to complete the survey for their child, with the proviso that they responded from the young person’s perspective. In total, 138 surveys were analysed, with 76 of these surveys having been completed by a parent. It is interesting that the Ministry selected just the one method of data collection despite their own guidelines for people with disability that suggest that multiple methods might be necessary when seeking the voice of children with disabilities. Furthermore, it was evident in the report that the Ministry understood that proxy reporting by parents needed to be cautiously interpreted, raising the question of why it was included as a means of data collection in this instance.

In addition to the guidelines for children and young people, the Ministry of Health has recently published guidelines for community engagement of people with disabilities (Ministry of Health, 2016). These guidelines offer a range of ideas from planning through to evaluation of the community engagement process. While not specifically aimed at participation of children, the guidelines do provide principles that could be adapted for children.

One thing is clear, there have been attempts from various Ministries within New Zealand to hear from young people and it would seem that some young people are finding their way to contribute to policy. What is less clear is the degree of participation and whether or not children with disabilities are taking part, unless specifically targeted.


(1) Currently in process is the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families (Advocacy, Workforce, and Age Settings) Amendment Bill, which includes the intent of ensuring that vulnerable children and young persons are able to express their views and have them considered as part of decision-making in individual cases and in the development of departmental services and policy.

Read 4. Are children with disabilities' voices different to all children's voices?

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