NZ 'not even close' to being accessible enough for disabled

Rebecca Moore
Source: 1News

Having free, easy access to a bathroom while out in New Zealand's biggest city feels like it should be a basic human right, but one Auckland mum says it's not that simple planning a day out for her family.

Finlay Butcher.

Kimberly Graham's nearly 17-year-old son Finlay Butcher has cerebral palsy and is non-verbal.

She told 1 NEWS, while her son loves the outdoors, even a trip to the zoo has to be cut short because there are no accessible toilets.

"Accessing a toilet is difficult for my son when we go to an event. If we go to the zoo we can't stay long. His world's become a lot smaller."

Monica Lake, head of zoo environment, design and construction at Auckland Zoo, acknowledged more needed to be done, but says that work is under way.

She told 1 NEWS the zoo has a goal to improve universal accessibility for underrepresented communities within Auckland that wish to visit over the next five years. 

"We are currently at the start of year one of our new plan and will be reviewing physical accessibility across the site as part of that process to determine more accurately what works are needed to ensure that Aucklanders can access the Zoo should they wish to," she said.

At the moment, the zoo currently has 71 toilets and 14 changing facilities. Of these, 14 toilets, which include changing facilities, have been built or modified to be accessible in accordance with New Zealand Standard Design for Access and Mobility.

"We are aware that even some of our accessible facilities do not meet the needs of everyone in our community and many of the older toilets and some habitat doors etc were not built to the same standards," she said.

But it's not just the zoo. Finlay also likes getting into warm water at the swimming pool but that's not a simple day out either.

Kimberly says for people with disabilities warm water helps keep them moving.

"You can feel the freedom in the pool," she said.

"His whole body relaxes."

But Kimberly said "life can be quite limited" when it came to finding appropriate options to take her son.

"There's nowhere in Auckland."

She added that at their local Albany Stadium Pools, even the changing rooms aren't appropriate.

In a statement to 1 NEWS, Auckland Council head of active recreation Dave Stewart touted the Albany facility as "one of the most accessible pools in Auckland".

Albany Stadium Pool changing room.

But Kimberly says the one family room has just been re-labelled with a joint family and disabled sticker, but that it wasn't useable because there is no seat to transfer onto or shower.

"They doubled up with the family change room because they had not included one at all [in original plans]," she said.

"It is literally a bench and a baby changing table.

"There's been very little thought in that."

She also noted in photographs sent to 1 NEWS a wet floor, no hand-held shower hose or safe transfer without slipping posing a danger.

Kimberly first raised the issue four years ago, but while there has been some progress recently, she says she's "miffed" it wasn’t considered at the beginning when the pool was consented.

"It shouldn't happen in the first place … they made a terrible mash up of it.

"I am hoping that Albany Stadium Pool is finally ticking the box but it's been a long-drawn-out process."

However, Stewart told 1 NEWS they had been working on the development of an accessible change room.

The family and disability changing room at Albany Stadium Pool.

"While the facility was legally compliant when it was built and has two accessible toilets, it does not have a designated accessible change room, meaning people with disabilities have to change in the family room.

"We have been working on the development of an accessible change room for some time and received funding approval from the local board for this financial year. The planning stage of the work has already been completed and we expect the build to commence shortly."

Stewart said the pool was fitted with ramp access to both the leisure and children's pools, as well as hoist access to the spa pool and availability of water wheelchairs.

But Kimberly took issue to the hoist, saying it was in the pool's deep end which made it difficult for some people with disabilities, like her son.

"I can't support him in the deep water," she said, adding that while "pockets of council are fantastic", she wants to see a more diverse advisory panel to represent a range of disabilities.

Stewart says the council is "committed to providing accessible facilities for everyone".

"We're very mindful that developments in accessibility methods continue to advance at a high rate, and that's why we're commencing an audit of our facilities and are seeking advice from accessibility specialists to identify and upgrade areas that need our attention."

A shrinking world

Despite the large issue, Kimberly admitted many Kiwis wouldn't even be aware of her family's daily struggle.

She said before they had Finlay, accessibility to these facilities wasn't on their radar either.

However, she wants to bring awareness to the issue because as Finlay grows older, his world is getting a lot smaller because it is difficult to manoeuvre him – without appropriate facilities, that's even more difficult.

"They're more restricted the bigger they get."

That's even why some Kiwi families have taken the drastic step to stunt the growth of their children with disabilities.

Jenn and Charley Hooper.

Charley Hooper, now almost 16, became the first New Zealander to undergo this kind of treatment, which included being on hormones over some years as a child. She was one the first in the world at the time.

Her mum, Jenn, told 1 NEWS it was the best decision for their daughter, adding that their other children, 14-year-old Zak and six-year-old Cody, were very tall.

Jenn admits the treatment, which also included removing Charley's uterus, didn't sit right with some people, but she says she and her husband Mark made the decision to remove an "otherwise useless organ".

Charley will never be able to give consent to have sex so she won't have children, therefore keeping those organs would only cause her pain, Jenn said. Charley also had her appendix removed during the procedure.

But soon after treatment, which started in Korea as they were denied ethical clearance to begin the treatment in New Zealand, Jenn says the family also saw other benefits for Charley, who is non-verbal.

She says Charley's seizures stopped, her limbs became more relaxed and her eyes were brighter.

"She was living a life of pain ... it was the single best thing we could do for her."

Now, it's hard to measure Charley's "twisty" body, but Jenn guessed she's around the size of a 10-year-old, about 25kgs, and she'll remain that size for her life.

And like Kimberly, Jenn is advocating to make New Zealand more accessible for disabled Kiwis - starting in her hometown Hamilton.

Jenn Hooper, of Changing Places, with daughter Charley in one of their accessible bathrooms.

She started Changing Places New Zealand in 2017 to provide fully accessible bathroom facilities - fitted with $40,000 to $50,000 worth of specialised equipment - in public places throughout New Zealand.

Jenn started with the first bathroom at the Hamilton Gardens, but hopes to extend the offering out nationwide.

"We want to be able to go wherever you go," she said.

"I don't think it's asking too much to have one within 10 to 15 minutes driving."

Jenn says New Zealand's "not even close" to being accessible enough for all Kiwis, though.

"The 'team of 5 million', God it's cringe, it's not real until things like this are seen to," she said.

"The world isn't set up for this level of disability ... their world is already tiny, don't make it more tiny."

Donations can be made to Changing Places via their Givealittle page .

Send your news tips to Rebecca.Moore@tvnz.co.nz