(Image via stuff.co.nz)
This is the transcript of tonight’s interview with Green MP Mojo Mathers on Radio Live. Listen here for the audio version.
My guest tonight will never hear this interview. Not because she isn’t interested, or because she’s too busy (although she is) but because Green MP Mojo Mathers is New Zealand’s first and only deaf member of parliament.
Mojo Mathers was elected to parliament on the Green Party list in 2011 after running unsuccessfully for the Rakaia electorate in 2005 and 2008 and is currently 14th on the party list, Mojo thanks for coming in
When you’re a female politician, everyone asks you about women’s issues, when you’re a Maori politician you get asked about Maori issues and when you’re a disabled politician the focus is often on that disability. So let’s come back to being deaf later and talk instead about why you entered politics
What are you most passionate about?
I entered politics because I’m passionate about the environment. I have a Master’s degree in conservation and forestry, and when my family and I moved out to a rural area we discovered that the local valley was under threat of flooding from an irrigation scheme and I became co-secretary of the dam action group and became politically active in that way. And that led me to join the Green Party and stand for the Green Party. So my first passion, first and foremost, was protecting the eonvironment.
And what is your focus in Parliament at the moment? What have you worked on in the last three years?
My portfolios include animal welfare, disabilities, food, natural health, civil defence. My two primary areas of focus are animal welfare because of the Animal Welfare Amendment Bill and because of animal testing being hugely topical at the moment with the psychoactive substances and also disability, of course, because of the huge demand from the disabled community. They’re just so delighted that they have someone who they can relate to, to represent them in Parliament.
Let’s talk about that disability portfolio in general… depending on how you define it there’s a huge number of New Zealanders living with a disability of some sort. With the whole world moving online, especially government, are there any groups who are being left out because of their disabilities? And if there are, what are we doing about that?
We’ve just been having an inquiry into the accessibility of Parliament, and among the many submissions was the difficulty of being able to access some information online, and being able to do things like make submissions online for people with vision impairments, because the security code is really difficult, so they can’t use it. That security code is designed to stop spam, but it’s also shutting out legitimate users from sending in submissions online. So their number one plea was to remove that code.
You’re talking about the KAPTCHA code where you see some blurry text and have to decode it… I have pretty good vision and fail those half the time. On some websites, I don’t know about New Zealand Government ones, there’s an audio option. Is that one of the things we’re doing?
I’m not sure, but I know they were encountering difficulties with that.
One of the things that has opened my eyes as a social media user over the years is that disability can to a degree become invisible. So I have on several occasions met people in real life who I know from Twitter or Facebook and it’s not until I meet them that I realise they’ve got a vision impairment or a hearing disability. Is social media a great enabler? Is this an entirely good thing for people with disabilities?
I think it’s totally up to the individual whether they choose to disclose it or not. Many people do just want to be seen as any other able-bodied person and don’t want their disability to be the number one identifying mark about them, other people choose to disclose because people need to interact with them differently.
Just going back to your former question about social media and disability, the other (?) I see is videos on social media when they’re not captioned, and it’s hugely frustrating for that community, particularly in politics and so on because you can’t access what everyone else is talking about. So I make a point when I share a clip on social media to only share it when there’s a transcript available or if it’s captioned.
This is one of the many issues that’s a difference between mainstream media and social media… in broadcast television, for example, it’s achievable to say to the broadcaster we want everything captioned, or at big public events we want a sign language interpreter but on YouTube where there’s millions and millions of clips uploaded all the time how do we solve that? Are there technology solutions you know about that automatically translate the dialogue into text?
On YouTube there is an automatic captioning software but it’s very poor quality and actually can produce garbled nonsense that has no relation to what the person is actually saying. That’s because it relies on voice recognition software, and voice recognition software has to be keyed in to the individual user to work effectively.
So I use a piece of technology called Captel Phone where there’s an operator also online who is using voice recognition software but it’s keyed into that operator and works very well. But just being able to randomly translate what anyone is saying … there’s still a long way to go.
So there is an opportunity for technology to solve the problem but it’s not doing anything useful at the moment.
There’s still a long way to go, but my understanding is that for people who want to put captions on or have a transcript there’s now a technology that makes it a lot easier and much more rapid to do that. So as long as people putting up clips are committed to captioning them, there are software packages that make that easy.
So there’s an opportunity for human power to do a better job than the human power? For the community to get involved to solve the problem…
Now before this interview I asked my friends on Twitter, of course, what questions I should ask you, and one was whether deaf people can actually access radio content? Is there any way in?
Unless the transcript is provided, no.
So there’s no software that will turn a radio interview into a stream of text?
Well I suppose if someone wanted to they could use voice recognition software keyed into the speaker, but I’m not aware of any radio show that automatically puts up transcripts of all their interviews. It would be fabulous if they did! But at the moment that’s not accessible as far as I’m aware.
I want to return to the issue of the deaf community engaging through social media. From my limited contact with that community, that word community is very very true. There’s an actual community, not a virtual one, an actual culture, almost a world apart and proudly so. Is there a risk through social media where that identity disappears that that feeling of community becomes diluted?
Not at all. I have a very large number of deaf followers on Facebook particularly, and we often discuss issues relevant to the deaf community, and that might be the ability to access sign language interpreters, it might be about captioning, it might be about their frustrations with being able to access employment or a particular job, or how great certain technology is, it might be to promote an even where they’ll have sign language interpreting, there’s all sorts of ways in which it’s used, and a sense of shared interest in that access.
And a good place to share jokes about sign language interpreters at Nelson Mandela’s funeral?
Absolutely, there was lots of conversation about that on Facebook, yes.
As an MP the beginning of your career was not exactly smooth. You faced some challenges in doing your work in the debating chamber. Tell me about that.
OK, so what happened is because I’m deaf and trying to follow the debate in the debating chamber, it’s simply too loud and there are too many people for me to lip read. So I always knew that in order to participate I would need to have electronic note takers. The media storm that erupted was around how they should be funded, with the Speaker arguing that it should come out of the support fund of the Member of Parliament gets to do their work, and me arguing that that would disadvantage me and that I would not be able to do my work with my constituents on an equal basis with other Members of Parliament. And also I argued that the only reason I would need note takers is that Parliament Television is not captioned, so Parliament is not accessible for hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders, not just myself, and I played an important role in representing these people in Parliament. So what happened was that when it went live we were having this argument around the funding and there was an incredible social media storm that erupted and what was incredible was the amount of overwhelming support for me. Because normally, politicians that ask for more money to support their work are heavily criticized, and yet this was the opposite… people got innately that this was about the future of what Parliament looks like. It was about representation for disabled people, and they got that this was about support for disabled people to do their work.
So from that point on social media has been an incredibly powerful tool for bringing about change. There was an online petition calling for Parliament TV to be captioned and as a result it will be. They’ve been investigating that for the last two years and in about 2015 that will become a reality.
I was reading on the National Foundation for the Deaf website that there are about 700,000 New Zealanders with a hearing impairment of some kind. So this is not just so you can participate in the debate, it’s so 700,000 people can watch Parliament TV and get really really bored…
(laughs) Well it depends on what you define as boring… some people are absolutely fascinated by Question Time and want to be able to follow that.
On social media one of the things politicians do other than listen to constituents is engage with other politicians. Who do you like? Who do you think is entertaining, or interesting, or challenging?
Well I enjoy Tau. Tau is awesome. When the debate around my trip to a radio interview in Masterton and the criticism from the Taxpayers’ Union was happening he tweeted in support of me and told them to back off and I very much appreciated that.
As a list MP your constituency is more virtual than physical so social media is a great way to connect with all those people. What tools do you use as an MP to connect with people around the country?
Facebook would be the number one tool for interacting with the disability community because it has more scope for extended dialogue and so on. You’re not as constrained as you are on Twitter. Twitter I find more useful to make a comment about what’s happening in the debating chamber or to put an insight of mine out there but for actual dialogue I find Facebook far more useful. Also there’s no substitute for face to face meetings so I travel around the country meeting up with groups and individuals to understand on a face to face level what is happening in their lives.
With the election coming in September are you running in Rakaia?
I’m actually running in Christchurch East
Damn Wikipedia! What are your plans to use digital and social platforms to get people to vote for you?
Well I’ll be seeking the party vote, not the individual vote, like all Green MPs. I will be using social media but I will be doing door knocking and getting out in the community because at the electorate level that’s what’s really important. People get to see you, get a sense of you as a person. So I’ll use a combination of both.
I hear this again and again from politicians from every party, yes they will use social media but they’ll still go out and walk and knock on the doors. Is that because it seems to the voter like you’re trying harder? It’s easy just to send a tweet but it’s hard to walk around and knock on a door.
It think it’s more a significant proportion of the population are not online and don’t use social media and we need to be able to interact and communicate with them as well.
Also there is a significant portion of the population that is online and does use social media but does not vote. And I’m thinking particularly of younger people, those first time voters 18 to 20. You’ve got children in that range, and I’m sure they vote or they’re in deep deep trouble with their mother, but speaking to them and speaking to young people around the country, what do you think is stopping them from voting and does technology and social media have a role in changing that attitude?
I think that what stops young people from voting is often disillusionment. They get so many conflicting messages around politicians that they become quite cynical, they don’t believe politicians are sincere, politicians get a really bad rep a lot of the time and there’s a perception out there that politicians are only in it for themselves and the only way to counteract that is to make yourself as accessible and as available as possible.
And that could be physical or digital?
That’s right, absolutely.
So as a parent, setting aside the politics, one of the challenges is keeping them safe online, teaching them good behaviour and stopping them using your credit card to make in-app purchases… how have you done that?
Basically we have a very open dialogue in our family around what is an appropriate level of use of social media and so on, and I think the bigger issue for us has been about how much time we spend on social media as opposed to time interacting with the family or reading or doing other activities that you would do if you weren’t online. So we have a discussion around what’s a healthy amount of time to spend online.
Are you friends with your children on Facebook?
Yes I am, all three of them.
That’s quite an achievement! Tell me about your personal online life. You’ve said you use Facebook and Twitter. What other sites and apps do you use a lot?
Well I have the New Zealand Sign Language Dictionary App on my iPhone, which is fantastic because you can look up any word and get a video of someone signing, which is useful because I can practice a certain sign if I want to use it in a conversation. Obviously I have the news apps, Stuff and the Herald and so on that keep me up to date with breaking news… these would be the main ones I use.
And if there was one app you couldn’t do without?
Mojo Mathers, thanks for joining me.