Future Perfect An Accessible World

Be. Accessible
© Be. Accessible

Imagine a world where every environment, experience and community is truly accessible for all. In New Zealand, the Be. Accessible social change movement is achieving just this.

Minnie Baragwanath was only 15 years old when she was told the limits of what she could become. Diagnosed with Stargardt Disease, a form of juvenile macular degeneration that progresses to legal blindness, her world was suddenly changed by a new set of rules. She had her first experience of being labelled as ‘different’ when she was told that she would most likely not get work and if she did it would be lowly paid.Minnie had no intention of following any rules. She went on to complete tertiary qualifications, became a researcher and television presenter on a disability TV series, Inside Out, and programme advisor for disability at Auckland City Council.

While developing an accessibility programme at the council for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Minnie began to wonder what more could be achieved if she thought bigger - how she could develop a campaign to bring about a nationwide social change movement to challenge the way disability and accessibility was viewed. The answer was Be. Accessible, a movement whose aim is as simple as it is ambitious.

  • The Be. campervan travelled around New Zealand to spread the message of accessibility. © CC BY-NC-ND: Be. Accessible
    The Be. campervan travelled around New Zealand to spread the message of accessibility.
  • The Be. team laughing during the road show. © CC BY-NC-ND: Be. Accessible
    The Be. team laughing during the road show.
  • Auckland mayor Len Brown awards Rena Savage after graduating from the Be. Leadership Programme. © CC BY-NC-ND: Be. Accessible
    Auckland mayor Len Brown awards Rena Savage after graduating from the Be. Leadership Programme.
  • Minnie Baragwanath becomes a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. © CC BY-NC-ND: Be. Accessible
    Minnie Baragwanath becomes a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
  • Minnie Baragwanath welcomes Red Nicholson into the Be. Fab 50 Network. © CC BY-NC-ND: Be. Accessible
    Minnie Baragwanath welcomes Red Nicholson into the Be. Fab 50 Network.
  • Kylie Shirtliff from Be. at the Hamilton Wellness Expo. © CC BY-NC-ND: Be. Accessible
    Kylie Shirtliff from Be. at the Hamilton Wellness Expo.
  • The first Be. Welcome sticker ever was installed at Alleluya Bar & Café Auckland in 2011. © CC BY-NC-ND: Be. Accessible
    The first Be. Welcome sticker ever was installed at Alleluya Bar & Café Auckland in 2011.
  • Minnie Baragwanath speaking at Festival for the Future. © CC BY-NC-ND: Be. Accessible
    Minnie Baragwanath speaking at Festival for the Future.
  • Minnie Baragwanath speaking at TEDx. © CC BY-NC-ND: Be. Accessible
    Minnie Baragwanath speaking at TEDx.
“The vision of Be. is for New Zealand to become the best place in the world to be, for all people, by creating a culture of accessibility,” said Minnie.25% of the population of Minnie’s home country, that is more than 1 million people, live with a disability of some kind. Add to this older people who acquire impairments as they age, parents with young children, and people with temporary injuries or illnesses, and you have a hugely significant proportion of the population.

“Perhaps if I can do something about this for myself, perhaps we, New Zealand, can do something about it for all those other people living with some kind of access needs or requirements,” Minnie sums up how her personal experience is woven around that of Be. Accessible.

The Beginning of Be.

A great idea can easily remain just that without financial backing. Initial support for Be. was provided through the founding partners, Auckland’s University of Technology, District Health Board and City Council, alongside crucial funding from the Ministry of Social Development’s Making a Difference fund, in January 2011.

With their short term survival secured, the diverse Be. team forged ahead. On board by now were leaders within the disability community itself, key members in the disability sector and Borderless Productions, a social change company. All hoped that further funding would fall into place to enable the campaign to extend nationwide. The Be. word was slowly spreading, with Minnie invited to Parliament to present their vision to a Ministerial Committee. What began as an update on their work around the Rugby World Cup soon became much bigger, with key figures in government recognising its potential not only for Auckland but the whole of New Zealand. “What if New Zealand became the most accessible tourist destination in the world?” Minnie asked, opening up conversations on the economics of disability.

It was at the official opening ceremony in May 2011 that Hon Tariana Turia, in her role as Minister for Disability Issues, announced that government would fund Be. with one million New Zealand dollars annually for the next four years. Be. Institute – a registered charity operating as a social enterprise – was launched at the same event, its role to deliver the nationwide programme of work that was Be.’s vision.

“[Be. Accessible] is about making the towns, the cities, the nook and crannies of New Zealand accessible to everyone, attractive to all…..if it is to BE; it is up to WE,” said Hon. Tariana Turia at the launch.“All people in this country have a right to achieve to their potential. And we as a country will not achieve to our potential, until and unless they can,” said John Allen, Chair of Be. Institute and part of the social change campaign since its very beginnings.

Taking Be. Nationwide

Following the official launch it was time to share the movement with the nation. The team hit the road for three weeks in their Be. campervan, travelling across the country to meet with communities and build a network of accessibility.

While many New Zealanders recognised the opportunity, there were of course those who did not. Minnie met early resistance, often within the disability community itself who had not been united in this way before. Her tactic was to listen, be respectful, and stay committed to Be.’s idea of what could be achieved.

This included building a community of leaders, with ten retreats held each year from 2011. “A group of really highly achieving people come together to distribute that wealth of knowledge and experience and wisdom,” said Philip Patston, Be. Leadership Programme Director. “And this is the first time that a group of people who are labelled disabled by society in New Zealand have come together to do that process.”

“It’s really important for me to be on this course because I’m young, I’m Maori, I’m female and I’m disabled,” said Rena Savage. “That’s four strikes and you’re out baby, or that’s what you can look at it as. Or you can turn it around and it’s four treasures to be cherished.” The first cohort of 19 new leaders graduated from the Be. Leadership programme at the end of 2011. As a group they represented the disability community itself - wide ranging in their age, gender and personal challenges, with the skills and self-belief to lead the future of accessibility. It was an emotional and joyful time for all those involved. “This is deep, heartfelt, authentic social change,” Minnie is convinced.

The second programme, Be. Welcome, also commenced in 2011. Businesses and organisations were invited to be assessed on all aspects of accessibility, from physical access to customer service and their culture towards accessibility. Programme Director Lesley Slade worked with each business or organisation to help identify where changes could be made, with an online directory of accessible locations created. And in 2013 – drawing on Minnie’s own experience that employment opportunities are not a given right for those with a disability – Be. Employed was launched. The internship programme brokers a relationship between young, skilled professionals and leading employers who are passionate about growing a diverse workforce.

Be. Turns 5

Five years on and Be. has an impressive list of achievements: 80 leaders have graduated from the Be. Leadership programme, a growing number of organisations and businesses are a part of Be. Welcome and Be. Employed, the documentary To. Be. Me. – the Social Movement of the 21st Century has been viewed by thousands New-Zealand-wide, and in 2014 Minnie received a Queens Honour becoming a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

It has not all been sweetness and light – precious people from their leadership programme including Rena Savage have been lost along the way, and Minnie has continued her own personal battle with accessibility after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015.

“I believe that 100% access needs to be mandated in health as a minimum,” she says. “It simply is not okay to give someone medication that they cannot see/read as it is in tiny font on little bottles, or to keep sending a critically ill patient oncology appointment letters in size 10 font that the patient cannot see.”

What many would see as simply the way of the world they live in will undoubtedly become the next step on the Be. Accessible ladder. “Why wouldn’t we want a world where everyone can reach their fullest potential and flourish and just be,” asks Minnie.