Disability has been part of my life forever. It took me a long time to embrace and celebrate it, and the journey getting there was not easy. But, getting there has shaped my life in a way I never imagined and led me to taking up this role.

My bike was a big part of the journey. I grew up on the Kapiti Coast and rode a bike from a very young age. It was far more than just a bike for me. Being an amputee I couldn't keep up with other kids running and walking, and I was acutely aware I was different.

My bike gave me a sense of freedom and a sense of fitting in, on my bike I was able to keep up with my friends. And I used to ride everywhere, daring to imagine that I might become one of the fastest people in the world on a bike.

But off the bike, I did not have a sense of belonging or being the same. I was in hospital while my friends were at school, ongoing surgeries were just part of life. I was never sure going into a surgery, exactly how I'd turn out the other side. I grew up with a profound sense of no control over my body.


My bike was always an escape from this. During my university years, I didn't ride much at all. In fact, I made a deliberate choice to shut disability out completely and in a way, suppress part of who I am. I tried to ignore it on the basis that this would be the only way to make it in the world. But then I was drawn back to the bike and started racing duathlons with friends.

In order to realise that dream I had as a kid of being the fastest in the world, and to be a Paralympic athlete, meant I had to confront my own disability. This remains the hardest thing I have done. But in the end, dealing with my disability meant I no longer had anything weighing me down and, I flew on my bike.

My medals, world records and journey to the podium are not the things I am proud of the most. What I am truly proud of is the journey I've taken to truly integrate disability into my world. When I stood in a Paralympic village for the first time, I finally understood I am not who I am despite my disability - I am who I am because of my disability.

When I returned home I decided to advocate for other people like me and many years later, I have found myself at the Human Rights Commission. It's an incredible honour to be here and I walk in the steps of some incredible New Zealanders.

I didn't get here on my own. Aside from my personal and professional supporters, there are those in the disability rights sector who have championed the rights of New Zealanders with disabilities. Thanks to them I've grown up in a society a little more tolerant than the previous generation.

In the 2013 disability survey, one in four New Zealanders identified as disabled. With our ageing population, we know this figure may rise. While we've come a long way, disabled New Zealanders still have a long way to go if we are to participate in our communities on an equal basis with other New Zealanders.

Disabled people still face barriers preventing us from reaching our full potential and those barriers cut a heavy swathe across their lives. The things most New Zealanders take for granted - getting a job, going to school, finding a house to live in - are everyday challenges for most people but for disabled New Zealanders they're often insurmountable.

I am spending the first 4-6 weeks in the new role listening to a range of stakeholders and partners. From there, I want to work out where best to place my efforts to help shift the dial for disabled New Zealanders.


Many years have passed since that 5-year-old was zipping about the streets of Kapiti on her bike wanting to fit in. I'm now in a role where my entire focus is working for the rights of people like that little girl so that she doesn't' just try to fit in but that her community and country makes sure she does.

* Paula Tesoriero MNZM, newly appointed New Zealand's Disability Rights Commissioner, has served on the Halberg Disability Sport Foundation, NZ Artificial Limb Service and Sport Wellington. She is also a member of the NZ Sports Tribunal. She won a cycling gold medal in a world record breaking time at the Beijing Paralympics.