Destiny Tara Tolevu is a powerhouse of a voice, advocating for the rights of persons who live with a disability.
She is intensely passionate and is unafraid to speak out loud regarding concerns that affect people with disabilities.
“We want to create a situation where people with disabilities have the opportunity to be visible in their own country,” says Tolevu, coordinator of the Cook Islands National Disability Council.
“Disability is a people issue – it is not a sickness. So we should all be concerned with it. Treat us how you want to be treated.”
For people with disabilities, a simple task can be made really challenging when buildings, processes and programs don't take their needs into consideration.
An important issue that needs to be addressed is accessibility.
“This is the first part of a whole host of things; if we could work towards removing those physical barriers that include pathways and roads that are not user friendly to us, that has to be the first start.
“Barriers such as stairs prevent people with physical disabilities from going about daily tasks, and that’s what disables them. It's the barriers not their impairment.
“When erecting or modifying a building it is important to think about how you can make your building and the services within it, accessible for everyone.”
Teupoko Rota has a physical disability. “For me one of the barriers is stairs,” she says.
“Every time I go somewhere and I know there are stairs, I have to really think about it, do I have to go? But I really want to go because I don’t want to miss out, so I force myself to just go ... then I'm really tired.
“When I look at the big Ministry of Finance and Economic Management and the courthouse building, sometimes I just have to walk away and leave it, and maybe try again another day when I have the energy.
“I know I have it in me and I can get up there, but it takes me longer, it’s hard and I have to use so much energy and I wonder, why does it have to be all the way up there?”
Tolevu says, we live in a very inaccessible country. “We are forced to sit in the dark spaces … our drive is to create more visibility, to increase the awareness of people about us.
“We want to see more diversity in these spaces, like more people with disability, more older people in their wheelchairs, their walkers… lets create more situations where everyone can be involved.”.
People who are physically capable don’t really understand, so it’s not an issue; but if you put yourself in a wheelchair …
Also, of concern to the council, is how people deliver their services to those with a disability.
“The way we communicate with people, there’s the physical environment, and how information is conveyed, it’s small things that could make the world a whole lot better.”
A familiar scenario is a person sitting in a wheelchair trying to talk to someone practically hidden by a counter, “purely because they haven’t thought of that disability perspective,” says Tolevu.
“Regardless of how intellectually impaired or whatever the impairment may be, there is still a need to ensure that the person has the opportunity to communicate for themselves.”
Tolevu is disappointed at their exclusion from talks regarding the nation’s Covid-19 preparedness programme.
She asks again, what happened to, we are all in this together?
President Mataiti Mataiti has physical disabilities – limited speech, and short vision.
He uses a computer to speak – an assistance device that has enabled him to have a voice, and he has used this voice in international meetings in Geneva at the World Health Organization.
A grandfather, Mataiti says one of the barriers during the Covid-19 response was social distancing. “It was a nightmare, and as a grandparent with two grandchildren with me, my question was, how can I distance myself from my grandkids?
“The simple answer to that was no I can't – sorry, I’m talking about the bond of a grandfather with his grandchildren and I know that we parents all understand this,” Mataiti says.
Tolevu believes the negative stigma that surrounds the word disability is because of the value that society has placed on them.
And she feels frustrated because the opportunities to create a more inclusive environment are not taken seriously.
“If you don’t include us, we get left behind; maybe over time, take steps, changing your policies, adapting your buildings.
“Not taking steps to making your buildings accessible, tells people with disabilities that they are not welcome there and how can we be a part of something, if we can’t even get our foot in the door?”
To pump up their disability awareness campaign, the council and members will participate in the Round Rarotonga Road Race in September.
“This is an event we can be inclusive of,” she says.
“We would appreciate and love support teams and businesses who take part in the events to promote our message of ‘inclusive for all’.
“This is not only about disability, it’s about all of us, men, women and children.”
Disability is a normal part of life, and can happen to anyone – like loss of eyesight, hearing and loss of limbs.
Many members of Cabinet are senior citizens, she adds. They should understand anyone can end up with a disability – it does not discriminate.
“Disability is a part of human diversity.”
· The organisation is seeking sponsorship of registration fees, t-shirts, transportation, and walking volunteers to be guides and push wheelchairs on the day of the Round Raro Road Race. To help or donate, contact Tolevu on 78034.