Awesome Humans 29 Oct
How I'm Advocating for Better Access
By Ari Kerssens
Hi! I’m Ari. I’m 27, based in Auckland, and I’m blind. I’m set to fly down to Wellington to address Parliament about the petition myself and fellow blindie Karley Parker started last year; after a conversation, we had turned into a year-long, grass-roots campaign spearheaded by two 26-year-olds with pretty much zero prior experience and no idea what we were doing.
I wanted to share a couple of learnings and reflections from the last year working on the Free Fares to Freedom (FFTF) campaign with Karley.
First off, though, let me tell you about FFTF and how we came to realise it was so important.
Free Fares to Freedom is a campaign and petition advocating for the government to reinstate equitable access to transport for the 80,000 Aotearoans who use Waka Kotahi (the New Zealand Transport Agency)’s Total Mobility (TM) scheme because of access needs that prevent them from driving and using public transport with ease, if at all.
During New Zealand’s first lockdown (in March 2020), the TM scheme subsidy on taxi fares was increased from 50 to 100%. It wasn’t a widely known change since we were all staying at home (especially the disabled community, being disproportionately vulnerable to disease).
Thanks to some stellar leadership and our team of five million, we were lucky enough to come out of lockdown earlier than expected. There were a few months between the start of the free-fare period, as we called it, in April, until the first review point on July 1 2020. That meant that as we came out of lockdown, something profound happened. For the first time, my world, Karley’s world, and thousands of others’ worlds were opened up for us to freely access. Just out our door, in a car, and where we needed to be. Just like driving.
It’s tough to articulate the shift in mindset this bestowed. Previously, for thousands of us, we’d have to weigh up the cost to benefit (and let’s not forget physical/psychological effort) every time we wanted to leave the house. That was our normal. Suddenly, we were able to simply say “yes” to whatever opportunities we were presented with. No thinking. No compromise. No navigating. No budgeting. No fear!
In retrospect, I have heard a few people liken our lived experience of not having access to transport to lockdown. Lockdown is what a lack of access to the people and places around you feels like – and independent mobility released us from that lockdown. Our movement wasn’t dependent on the availability of others anymore.
This was an “aha” moment, an understanding of what the privilege of driving felt like. And whoa, did it feel good.
It highlighted how abnormal our “normal” was—the potential. The possibility, if you will, of what “normal” could be for the tens of thousands of us and the people we are close to.
When it became apparent our newfound freedom was being pulled out from under our feet when July came around, Karley and I jumped headfirst into this. We had no plan, no experience, but we knew we had to do something.
After featuring on the radio, in the paper, on telly, a whirlwind trip to Wellington, a stunning megaphone jazz performance on the steps of Parliament and with another trip to our capital on the Horizon, I think the old “if I can do it anybody can” cliché seems kind of relevant here.
Alt text: Ari, a young man is standing on a podium speaking into a microphone next to a sign language interpreter. He is wearing brown shades, white button up shirt and a black jacket. Ari has a mullet haircut, bleached silver at the top.
Alt text: Ari and Karley are standing in front of concrete stairs posing for a photo. Ari is holding a document with a government official and Karley is on his right, holding a loudspeaker and her blue and yellow cane. Both are smiling for the camera.
Would I do things differently if I were to do this again? Absolutely. Do I regret how we did things? Absolutely not! Making mistakes is an essential part of learning.
We messed things up a couple of times. Accidentally standing-up the Minister of Transport, forgetting my speech in front of an audience full of people with fancy letters in their names (think Hon, MNZM, PhD…), and a bunch of digital oopsies between emails and social media. I think it’s essential to embrace mistakes, not to fear them.
At the end of the day, we started with nothing, and now Waka Kotahi has commissioned research into and an independent review of the way people with mobility access needs use transport in Aotearoa.
I want to acknowledge both I and Karley had access needs also. Not only our eyesight, but we were both relatively new to using screen readers. Those things are complex, so it made information processing difficult. There were plenty of times I personally got so frustrated I had to stop and unwind for a while. So I did, accepting that, like any new skill, I was still learning, and that takes time – whether related to an access need or not.
Being human is, in a sense, an access need. We all have things we’re good at and things we struggle with. Your grandmother probably can’t access information in a smartphone app easily, if at all. That’s an access barrier for her. Whether she thinks of herself as “disabled” or not – disability isn’t inherent in a person; it is created through interactions with attitudes and environments in such a way that prevents full participation (that’s how the UN defines it anyway – I like it). It’s important to be honest with ourselves about our abilities and to be honest with others. Collaboration is hugely powerful, and defining roles that accommodate each individual’s strengths so everyone can thrive just makes life so much easier.
Beyond your primary team – if you’re lucky enough to have one – collaboration is still a powerful force. If you’re working on something you believe is valuable – whatever value means to you – chances are others will too. They’ll have fresh perspectives and ideas you’d not thought of. Being able to share openly with them is so powerful! I can’t tell you how valuable the support Karley and I received – at times from the most unexpected places.
As I’m writing this, I’m thinking, “what can I give the reader to take away?”. – and I hope that some of these insights are cross-applicable to whatever journey you are on. It takes the most courage to simply start, to commit. Everything else will grow; it won’t be perfect; it might be messy at first. Still, if you stay open to learning from your mistakes rather than fleeing them, you’ll get somewhere in the end – even if your journey takes you to a totally different destination to what you had envisioned.
If you want to learn more about our petition, please check out our linktree: https://linktr.ee/freefarestofreedom/
All Pictures from Ari 2021 (@adventuresofari)