This week the NZ Herald published a story about Ashley Peacock – a man with autism who has been in ‘seclusion’ in a Capital and Coast Health District Health Board facility for five years. That means living in a room of about 10 square metres with virtually no furniture and only being allowed outside for about an hour each day.
‘Seclusion’ is the medical euphemism for solitary confinement. Ashley has not been convicted of any crime. He has a disability, which is now complicated by mental illness and, not surprisingly, made worse by being isolated for so long.
To put seclusion and isolation in context, it is regarded as a form of torture under the UN Crimes of Torture Act. It is a breach of human rights.
Ashley is only 37. And he is not the only person with a disability who has lived in seclusion in New Zealand for a long time. According to the NZ Herald story there are about five other known cases in mental health facilities. According to the Ministry of Health 7091 people spent time in seclusion last year. Apparently this is good news. The rates have dropped by 32 per cent.
Kirsty Johnson, who wrote the article, and the NZ Herald should be commended for bringing Ashley’s story to our attention. It’s a well-researched and thorough investigation into how Ashley came to be where he is and why he continues to be there. The reasons seem largely to do with risk and safety. And the risk and safety seems to have more to do with the ramifications for medical professionals if something goes wrong than the actual risk to the public posed by Ashley himself.
Most New Zealanders would consider us to be a first world country. Part of Helen Clark’s credibility as a candidate for the top job at the UN is because she is from a country that seems to have its act together. And if we judge our top issues by what is reported in the news media then we don’t have much to worry about. I’ve just done a quick scan of the websites of some of the popular media outlets. The most popular story on Stuff today is about a student staging a protest because she was told to wear a bra. On TV 3’s ‘Story’ website the lead story appears to be about bubble wrap. On ‘Seven Sharp’ Toni Street is talking about the important issue of freedom of speech – but its Fiji that she is taking to task. We’re sweet.
Ashley’s story was picked up by Newstalk ZB, which is owned by the same company as the NZ Herald, and there has been a degree of public outrage expressed on social media platforms. But I suspect that more people know the name of The Bachelor than Ashley’s name, and that more people have commented about the gorilla shot at the Cincinnati Zoo than about Ashley’s solitary confinement.
I suspect that it’s because of the way we think about people with disabilities. It wasn’t that long ago that we institutionalised people who didn’t fit in and there is still a hang-over in our attitudes. We see it every time parents of children with disabilities turn up at their local school and are turned away. (Yes, technically this is illegal and yes, it is also a breach of human rights but it happens all the time.) We see it in the fact that the funding to support disabled children in the classroom is contestable. And that’s just how we start with disabled people and their families.
The subliminal message in all this is that disabled people are not really valued members of our community.
Every New Zealander needs to ask themselves if they are ok with this. Are we are ok with tolerating human rights breaches in our own backyard?
Inclusive NZ is a membership organisation working for those who provide employment, participation and inclusion services for people with disabilities.
This blog has been contributed by a member of ComVoices
ComVoices actively promotes the value that community sector organisations and their people, both paid and unpaid, add to New Zealand’s economic and social wellbeing through information, and political advocacy and dialogue.
Click here for our website: http://comvoices.org.nz/