They bungy jump, they rock climb, they are Commonwealth Games competitors.

They're artists, athletes, employers, young people, parents and game-changers in their sector.

They are also living with disabilities.

The Herald on Sunday spoke to some of the finalists in the Attitude Awards, which celebrate excellence and achievements of people living with disabilities.


Winners will be announced at a black-tie ceremony at Auckland's SkyCity on November 28.

These are their stories.

Alicia Kapa - Youth Spirit Award

First impressions can be misleading, Alicia Kapa says.

Her physical condition often makes people assume she is also cognitively impaired.

"In reality it's only my body," she says.

"I have been raised to think I'm just like everyone else, so personally I find it harder to find things I cannot do than things I can."

Kapa, 19, is a tertiary student and a disability advocate. She has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair, and is mostly non-verbal. For those who cannot understand what she is saying, she communicates by typing words into her iPad with a wand attached to her head.

"I need help with daily tasks such as getting ready for the day, going to university, feeding and communicating with people but other than that it does not really affect day-to-day life," Kapa says.

As if to underline the point, the first video on her YouTube channel "Wheely Wacky Adventures" features her bungy jumping in Taupō.


"We're not going to die," she assures her friend in the video, before being taken out of her wheelchair, strapped into a harness, and hurled off the 50m-high platform towards the Waikato River.

"It's more fun than scary," she says after returning to firm ground, missing a shoe.

There are also videos of her using her head wand to paint, to bake, and to use Facebook. They are about showing what is possible with a disability, Kapa says. One day she hopes to be able to drive a car.

She is studying criminology and Māori studies full-time at the University of Auckland. When she graduates, she wants to work with young people with behavioural challenges in the justice system.

Her condition is an advantage for this sort of work, she says, because it has given her patience and understanding.

"Also from personal experiences I have noticed that people feel comfortable around me, which makes them more inclined to be more open with me and tell me things they wouldn't usually tell people."

Kapa admits she was a little confused about her Attitude nomination because she did not feel she was "contributing significantly to improving society".

"I don't think of myself as doing anything amazing.

"To me, it's not that important to have my life recognised in this way because I believe I'm just living my life like any other 19-year-old.

"In saying that, I do think it is important for other people to see what I am — as well as other people with disabilities are — capable of."

Rachel Māia - Emerging Athlete Award

Rachel Maia, who has severe ankle injuries, says she gets a kick out of telling people she is an international rock climber. Photograph by Bevan Conley.
Rachel Maia, who has severe ankle injuries, says she gets a kick out of telling people she is an international rock climber. Photograph by Bevan Conley.

Rachel Māia loved to climb trees as a child.

"My parents said once that if they were wondering where I'd gotten to they'd generally starting looking at eye level because I probably wasn't below that."

It was a natural step for her to begin climbing competitively at age 16, when she was studying at James Hargest College in Invercargill.

But while climbing in the South Island Secondary School Championship in 1999, she fell awkwardly descending from a climbing wall and injured both her ankles, shattering one and breaking the other.

At the time, Māia thought she could shake it off and compete the next day. But it would be 19 years before she got back on the wall at a competitive level.

Learning to climb again required physical adjustments and rewiring the way her brain worked.

"I think when I started re-learning the patterns that I climbed with, a lot of other rewiring in my life finally clicked and I found my best self. I quite like her — because I've fought to become her."

The 35-year-old mother of three, from Whanganui, is the first New Zealand paraclimber to compete on the international stage. This week, she made the finals of the world championships in Innsbruck, Austria.

"I sat there at the bottom of the wall waiting to be announced for the first climb ... just breathing and reminding myself 'It's a sunny day, with a crowd and an atmosphere, and I'm surrounded by my paraclimbing family to climb together on one of the best walls in the world'.

"Then I went out there and had so much fun and was one of only three athletes to top [the wall]. It felt ridiculously good."

Being a trailblazer was a thrill and a challenge, she says. She had to work it out for herself.

"My coach has been supporting me from afar and there have been some tearful 'I don't know what I'm doing' phone calls and messages. I'm forever thankful for that support."

Nearly 20 years on from her injury, she still gets asked half a dozen times a day by strangers what happened to her or "when will that get better?".

It initially frustrated her, but she has learned to switch the conversation into something positive.

"I smile and respond with 'I'm a paraclimber for New Zealand". I admit I do get a little inward chuckle out of the brief flicker of confusion that crosses many faces when I say I rock climb.

"I love challenging the world's view of what is and what isn't possible."

Celyn Edwards - Emerging Athlete Award

Celyn Edwards competed in the Commonwealth Games in April. Photo / Photosport
Celyn Edwards competed in the Commonwealth Games in April. Photo / Photosport

Within six weeks of losing an arm, Celyn Edwards was back in the swimming pool for training.

He had his left arm amputated after a car crash at age 5 while being driven home from school in Kaituna Valley, near Akaroa. The car flipped and his arm was caught.

Edwards had begun swimming at about 18 months old and was not deterred.

"It didn't really change that much. I just got back into everything."

The thing that people find most surprising about his disability, he says, was how little difference it made to the way he lived and what he could do.

Now 17, Edwards is a competitive swimmer. He also took up cycling at age 6, later experimenting with a prosthetic arm but throwing it out because it was "too restraining".

The loss of an arm required a slight tweak to his swimming technique.

"Where I fall through the water, it's more centralised, so I don't turn as much. And rotation in the water is also a bit lower than if I had two arms. But for the most part it's pretty similar."

He competed in swimming at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in April, placing fourth in the 200m individual medley and cutting his personal best time by 10 seconds.

"That was a big step up for me. I haven't really been to a competition that big ever."

To compete at the highest level, he trains in the pool seven times a week, about 90 minutes each time, with a half-hour warm-up. He also goes to the gym twice a week for 90 minutes. That means getting up at 5am every day to fit in training around studies at Hillmorton High School.

The next goal is qualification for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

He also wants to break the world record in the 200m butterfly. He has shaved 10 seconds off the record while swimming "short course" — in a 25m pool. Now, he needs to replicate that time in a 50m pool during competition.

His advice for aspiring athletes with a disability?

"Probably the main thing is give everything a go. Do your best and if it doesn't work, just change it around until it does."

Kiringāua Cassidy - Youth Spirit Award

Despite only being in Year 10, the 14-year-old from Dunedin, who has spina bifida, is part of a kapa haka leadership team and is a facilitator for an after-school children's programme.

Duncan Armstrong - Attitude Artistic Achievement Award

Dancer Duncan Armstrong. Photo / Dean Purcell
Dancer Duncan Armstrong. Photo / Dean Purcell

The 29-year-old, from Wellington, is a professional dancer, a musician and an actor. As well as touring with the Touch Compass company, the Down syndrome artist recently produced a play, Forcefield, which he said was influenced by both Shakespeare and Disney. He says he wants to be a great artist, not a great disabled artist.

"Being Down syndrome is part of me, but not the whole of me."

Timothy Young - Attitude Entrepreneur Award

Hamilton man Tim Young was paralysed in a snowboarding accident. Photo / Supplied
Hamilton man Tim Young was paralysed in a snowboarding accident. Photo / Supplied

Since fracturing his vertebrae in a snowboarding accident nine years ago, Young has completed science and psychology degrees and founded an education technology business and an educational video game, Rocket Island.

William Luskie - Attitude Leadership Award

Luskie, from Dunedin, is a leading disability advocate and active member of several groups, including the Dunedin City Council Disability Advisory Group.

Isobel Tamati - Spirit of Attitude Award

Tamati made a "one in a million" recovery from extensive brain damage at age 74, after a lifetime of working with disadvantaged youth and people with disabilities.

Umi Asaka - Attitude Making a Difference Award

Originally from Japan, the 22-year-old moved to New Zealand after the Japanese earthquakes in 2011. Asaka, who has brittle bones, is a social worker at the University of Otago and a disability advocate.

Tickets to the awards night are available at