Fighting for representation of disabled people

Current Law student Alice Mander is striving towards creating better opportunities for disabled tertiary students and people in Aotearoa.

Alice outside Old Government Buildings
Alice outside Old Government Buildings

Alice Mander grew up feeling as though she was the only one living with a disability.

“There is a lack of representation and people don’t really talk about disability in the same way they talk about other minorities. At University, I left my bubble and saw the bigger inequities in society, including for disabled people which inspired me to change that,” says Alice.

She was recently recognised by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) as one of 25 inspiring women under 25 for her work on behalf of disabled people.

Alice left her safety bubble and community in Auckland to come to Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington to study Law and Arts, majoring in Sociology and Film Studies, and pursuing Honours in her Law degree. While she is busy with studying, she continues to pursue her passion for improving the lives of disabled people.

Alice didn’t truly get immersed in being part of the voice for disabled people until she moved to Wellington. “It took me a while to become comfortable in my own skin.”

Alice has been a part of the Disabled Students Association Victoria University of Wellington (DSA) for the past two years. Last year, the DSA collaborated with Salient to produce the first disability themed issue covering “mental health, physical disability, chronic illness, and the whole shebang.” The issue also covered the referendum on the End of Life Act, and some of the issues faced by disabled people around the University.

“When you do this kind of work, you meet amazing people, mentors and friends who help give you that drive to see all sorts of pathways you can go down,” says Alice.

Some of the Faculty of Law academics play a role in inspiring Alice with the work they are doing for their own communities where there is a different but similar kaupapa for elevating minority voices.

On a national level Alice has worked with other tertiary students to create the National Disabled Students Association which she is now president of. “We represent disabled students at tertiary level nationally, we work with Government to get the disabled voice into that space when it comes to certain policies or a new law that will affect students.

“It is challenging being in a space where you have less power and trying to balance work with University, but it is really important. I couldn’t do the work I do without the support of my peers.”

Alice would like to use the privilege of her education to put her skills and what she has learned into practice, to help other people.

“Becoming an advocate for others that gives them that space and support—I think that is a big thing. I am very lucky with my education and background so I want to use that to create pathways for others and also just be a voice for those who feel disempowered or feel they don’t have one, which would be very relevant if I became a lawyer.”

Wellington could be the place where Alice can put those skills into practice.

“I’ve always loved Wellington. I love the place; I love the city. With parliament right here and the majority of the public sector. Wellington has that public law focus which definitely attracted me— I am not really into the commercial side.”

Other disabled activists have been the most influential people in Alice’s life, particularly New Zealand disabled journalists and media creators. The work they undertake gives Alice a sense of pride. “This is so important when you grow up in a world that doesn’t really let you have that sense of pride. I wouldn’t be where I am professionally and personally if not for the disabled activists in my life; the support and mentorship has been so valuable.”

Alice stands by the personal philosophy: “You’re not disabled by your personal impairment, rather society.” Broadly, she’d like to see a society that doesn’t disable people, doesn’t create systems that exclude them, and where disabled people can have their integrity acknowledged.

“The big thing is being in the room and being at the table to educate people and creating those safe community spaces for other disabled people and other minorities.

“It is hard to be a disabled person in a world that doesn’t like disabled people. I’d like to see a world where disabled kids grow up and are proud of who they are and love who they are despite what anyone says.”

The law makes a massive difference, but Alice believes it needs diversity of voices. Alice wants to see more representation among the legal environment with disabled people included in that change to allow them to speak out about their rights or issues they face and hopefully create more disabled leaders – “when I leave university, that would be the dream”.