Thursday, November 13, 2008

Talking the Disability Talk in Wellington

Yesterday, Thursday November 13, I arrived at the Te Papa at 9 am to participate in CCS Disability Action's Disability Staff Forum, coordinated by Ruth Jones. Lesson number one: you have to say "CCS Disability Action" in full whenever you refer to the organization, because it is in process of changing focus a la the Arc, in the US. CCS used to stand for Crippled Children's Society, but now it is just the "CCS" part of CCS Disability Action. The organization is moving towards greater disability empowerment and leadership, hence the Disability Staff Forum. The Forum was a gathering of staffers with disabilities only to discuss issues of leadership development and disability representation in the organization. As part of the proceedings, I spoke a bit about the organizations I work with and how disability representation is done there. There was a lot of common ground between these staffers and folks in the US, thought with some important differences---CCS Disability Action, unlike Access Living for example, does not have a rule/bylaw that states that staff must be at least 50% people with disabilities, which folks here found interesting.

Also, here and in Australia, folks say "people with disability" rather than "people with disabilities."

I was surprised at how many folks in the staff gathering were what we in the US would term "hard of hearing"or in NZ "have a hearing impairment." I think there were at least five. At least one knew a little NZSL.

Another thing to keep in mind for the Aussie and NZ experience: tea is BIG. Break times in the morning and afternoon during events are set aside for tea.

Anyway, then we all had lunch and I met Viv Maidaborn, the CEO for the organization. In addition, I met some of Barbel's coworkers and others while standing around with my lunch. I decided that I would take an hour to look around the Te Papa because I was really curious about the Maori experience---there were lots of Maori people at the conference.

Anyway the Te Papa's Maori holdings on display are AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMAZING. Just completely stunning. I think the Native American Museum in Washington is sort of the Te Papa equivalent. Just a beautiful building with fantastic displays, including entire Maori buildings that have been taken apart and reassembled and put inside the Te Papa. Maori design and craft skills are, again, AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMAZING! Maori culture and history are incredibly strong here and have a real presence. I talked to some Maori who are aware of the issues confronting Native Americans...I believe I heard that Maori representatives have been called upon to talk to indigenous peoples in the US about culture preservation and representation. Anyhow, I know I am just dipping my toe into the Maori waters so to speak, but I found what I was seeing and hearing hugely interesting.

After tripping around the Te Papa, all attendees assemed for the Annual General Meeting of CCS Disability Action, which included awards, budget presentations, speeches, and me. So I talked for ten minutes about direct action in the US, especially the fight to close Howe and how ADAPT came to town to help pressure the Illinois state government. Direct action is not really used in a US sense here in NZ, plus CCS Disability Action is just starting to work on the focus on action, so it was interesting to get people's reactions. A Maori man named Hayden Harry said that the Howe example affected him because in Maori culture people take care of their own---they do not send them away. So he was happy that we were able to help close Howe.

Next, we had a Maori style welcoming ceremony. This sort of ceremony is led by senior Maori men, and people sit on two sides of a room facing each other, with certain rules about who faces who. The ceremony was in both Maori and English, and I had a Samoan interpreter who knew some ASL helping me. People from each side spoke one at a time, and after speeches, a song was sung by supporters in Maori. So any time anyone said something good, they sang. There were also prayers and remembrances of those who have passed away and those who are far away, in order to connect the human web. After the preliminaries, people greeted each other by bumping noses. Then, we arranged ourselves into a circle and different people spoke about the work they are doing, sort of reporting on how things are going. Again, after each speech, a song was sung. Then there was a final uniting song that was in both English and Maori, and I was able to sign along with that one.

Then we had "drinks and nibbles," aka, drinks and appetizers. I socialized with different folks and then a group of us went out for Thai food, and then those who were still in the game went to a pub next to the NZ Stock Exchange---which is right by the Te Papa. All in all an excellent day! AAAAAAAAAAAAMAZING!

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