Poverty, Rights and Glasses

In principle, children and young people’s right to education in New Zealand is without question - it is enshrined in legislation and human rights conventions. In practice, however, some students are not able to exercise this right, experiencing obstacles to accessing and participating in education, and to achieving their educational potential. Often this is associated with constructs such as disability, poverty, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality and so forth. For many of these students, the factors that act to exclude and marginalise them from and within education are very difficult to identify and overcome. This is because these factors often derive from exclusionary attitudes and values that can be  so deeply embedded in the culture and practice of schools as to be ‘taken for the ordinary’ and not seen for what they are. 

However, it is not just attitudes and values that can exclude and marginalise students from and within education, it can be practicalities as well. The practicalities of poverty have been shown to bring disadvantage in relation to educational opportunities and outcomes. For example, studies have shown that compared with children whose families had incomes of at least twice the poverty-line level during their early years, poor children complete two fewer years of schooling. Children from low socio-economic background have nearly twice the unexplained school absence than students from wealthier backgrounds, experience much higher rates of school suspension, and are less likely to leave school with a NCEA level 2 qualification. Kirsty Johnston, a New Zealand investigative reporter has described vast disparities of opportunities between decile 1 and decile 10 schools:

“…where at [decile] 1, only a quarter of children could afford a school camp, while at the other schools, large groups of children were taking overseas trips. Research showed high-decile schools were more likely to have quality buildings, a wide range of extra-curricular activities, a wealth of IT and experienced, stable, staffing. They have the ability to raise enough funds to have $1000 more per child than low decile schools, despite targeted funding.”

See Johnston’s report here.

Poverty and Glasses

A recent study that we were involved in focused on the provision of corrective lenses for students with visual impairments in low decile schools in South Auckland New Zealand. Given the importance of vision to learning, the link between being able to see, and being able to access education and achieve positive educational outcomes is obvious. 

It has been well-reported that families from low socio-economic backgrounds face challenges in accessing glasses for their children. Reasons include a lack of personal health insurance, the high cost of glasses, the cost of fuel or public transport to attend appointments with an optometrist, difficulty getting time off work for appointments, and competing financial priorities such as food and housing. Couple this with research showing that children from poor urban areas experience more than twice the normal rate of vision problems, then there is an obvious issue here. 

In response to this,  an organisation called Essilor, a French global optics company which operates in nearly 100 countries, offers free screening and two pairs of glasses funded by donations and volunteers. Essilor has offered this service in some low- decile schools in New Zealand since 2016. In 2017 in Manurewa, 525 children were screened and 32% were referred on for further eye examination. In 2016 in Gisborne, 246 children were screened and 22% referred on. In total so far, 2163 children  have been screened, 671 referred, and 225 spectacles dispensed. This equates to approximately 10% of children requiring glasses. 

See a news report of this project here.

What are the Issues?

We have identified the following issues:

  • There is a subsidy for children who meet the income means test, but this is not sufficient for some specialised lenses (at time of publication this was $287.00). 

  • Parents cannot get to the optometrist because of economic factors

  • Information is sent to parents in English which they may not understand

  • Glasses get broken and parents cannot afford to replace them

  • The glasses don’t come to and from school

  • There is often stigma related to wearing glasses

  • The process of testing the vision of children in New Zealand is not adequate

In relation to vision testing in New Zealand, children’s vision  is only tested once before a child starts school then not again until the end of primary school (when children are 11 or 12 years of age). What happens to children whose vision difficulties do not begin or become an issue until they start school? Are some children going through primary school with undetected vision difficulties? Figures from this project show that certainly there are children requiring glasses who did not have them (10% of those tested). The identification of some of these children was the first time that parents  knew that there was a problem with their child’s vision. For other parents however, they knew that there was a problem, but did not have the means to ensure that their child had glasses. 

Rights and Obligations

We would argue that this is a human rights issue, that needs a Governmental response. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself…including medical care and necessary social services. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states that governments should “recognise the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health. States Parties shall strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to such health care services”

The children in the research are not able to access their rights and the implications of this for their future lives could be disastrous. In New Zealand, we have been struggling for a number of years to ‘put our finger’ on the link between poverty and educational access and outcomes and the issue of the provision of glasses is something that is sitting right on the surface for us all to see (unlike many other exclusionary factors that are hidden and deeply embedded within our systems). We are calling on the New Zealand Government to ensure children who need corrective lenses are identified, and can access them without discrimination on the basis of their parents income by providing regular and free vision testing in school and free and accessible correctives lenses to children who require them. Not only is this is an entitlement of rights, but also makes good economic and social sense.