A part-time checkout operator who took on the Government over unfair entitlements and won.

A cookie company which only employs disabled people and is on track to break a profit barely two years after opening.

And athletes who remain laser-focused on their sporting dreams after devastating injuries.

These are some of the country's highest achievers. They are also living with disabilities or working with disabled people.


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And some of them will be crowned winners in the Attitude Awards, which celebrates excellence and achievements in the disabled community. The Herald on Sunday spoke to some of the nominees about how they do it.

The winners will be announced in a black-tie ceremony at Auckland's Sky City on Friday November 22.

Attitude Entrepreneur Award

Personal trainer and business owner AJ Pouoa. Photo / Supplied
Personal trainer and business owner AJ Pouoa. Photo / Supplied

Pouoa's goal of becoming a personal trainer didn't disappear when she was badly injured in 2016.

She fell from the balcony of a third-storey apartment while at a party, breaking her back.

At the time, she had been captaining the Pt Chevaliers rugby league side. She had meant to begin a personal training course a week later.

After her fall, she was a paraplegic and thought her sporting life had gone.


"I had no hope, no goals or aspirations," she said. "I felt like numb and purposeless."

While in rehabilitation at the Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation unit, she saw people in wheelchairs working out. The Paralympics were also on television at the time.

"I thought to myself, that could be me. So I made the decision to pick myself up, train and reset.

"Why should I give up that goal just because I'm in a wheelchair? My whole mindset was still the same from when I was playing sport. Why stop now when I have so much knowledge to share with people that are struggling?"

She took the personal training course and became the first person to complete it in a wheelchair.

Pouoa now runs a personal training and fitness business called Wheelie Active, which focuses on people with special needs.

"The journey may be different but the goal remains the same," she said.

Attitude ACC Employer Award

The Cookie Project co-founders Graeme Haddon and Eric Chuah. The social enterprise is a finalist in the Attitude Awards. Photo / Supplied
The Cookie Project co-founders Graeme Haddon and Eric Chuah. The social enterprise is a finalist in the Attitude Awards. Photo / Supplied

When The Cookie Project first started, people thought it was a con.

The Auckland-based social enterprise was employing only disabled people. There were no job interviews and applicants didn't need a resume. They would earn the adult minimum wage of $17.70 - well above the rates which some companies paid to disabled workers.

Workers could take as many breaks as they wanted, for as long as they wanted. And they could eat fresh cookies at the end of a production shift.

"Believe it or not, no one wanted to join us," said The Cookie Project co-founder Eric Chuah. "They thought we were a scam."

Just 22 per cent of disabled people are employed. Many are paid at rates as low as 60c an hour to do menial tasks, and others were simply forced to do volunteer work.

The idea for The Cookie Project was formed two years ago. Graeme Haddon, a caregiver, asked Chuah at a speaking engagement how he could support his children after they left school - three of whom were severely disabled. Chuah had moved to into social enterprises after 15 years in the banking sector.

At a brainstorming meeting two days later, Haddon gave Chuah some home-made cookies. Chuah recommended he use a better brand of butter.

"Two days later he gave me the new version of his cookies, and I said 'This is it. This is the future for you and your family'. We will make cookies as a way to create employment."

A recipe was developed over six months with assistance from top brands - Lewis Road Creamery, Pic's Peanut Butter, and Trade Aid. Eat My Lunch offered the use of their kitchen for production, at no cost for the first year.

The for-profit enterprise now employs 35 people, and all but one - an accountant - are disabled. It makes 5000 cookies a day and the brand is stocked in five supermarkets. They hope to be in 20 supermarkets by Christmas. It expects to break a profit by the end of the year, and is aiming to pay its staff a living wage (currently $21.15) within two years.

"I believe New Zealand needs to get better in terms … understanding that everyone needs an opportunity," Chuah said. "We see all our bakers, every single one, as glass half full. And that's why we create magic by giving them a task and believing in them."

Haddon, co-founded The Cookie Project, said his daughter Ngā Hou had flourished since becoming a baker at the organisation.

"She knows everything in that kitchen. And from a young girl who has never done a lot of talking - everybody talked for her - she now talks so much.

"It's because in the kitchen everyone encourages her."

Attitude Entrepreneur Award

After shattering his spine in a canyoning accident in the Swiss Alps, Jezza Williams agonised over what tack his life should take.

Williams spent a month in a coma and 11 months in rehabilitation after he slipped and struck his head on a rocks in 2010. He was left tetraplegic, with no function above his chest apart from limited movement in his biceps.

"I was an adventurer, river guide, ski patrol. I did expedition trips on the Zambesi, I did trips through Europe, America, all over the world," he said.

"Should I study something and get a job doing something that's not really my cup of tea? I had all this experience, why would I change what I do?"

With 20 years experience in adventure tourism, he formed a company called Making Trax and advised the industry on how to be more accessible for people like him.

In that role, he has helped create and introduce equipment which allows disabled people to skydive and go whitewater rafting. He has made skis which allow wheelchair users to traverse Franz Josef glacier. And he has developed specially-designed sea kayaks for use in Wanaka, Abel Tasman, and Kaikoura.

"If my body can do it, anybody can do it": Attitude Awards finalist Jezza Williams. Photo / Supplied

"I love freaking out the industry and showing them what really is possible," Williams said.

Tourism companies have been enthusiastic and hungry for advice, he said.

"For them to understand that somebody with a disability is no harder work than somebody that doesn't speak English and is from a big city. It's the largest minority in the world - people with disabilities."

Williams, who lives in Waipara, north of Christchurch, is philosophical about the injury that left him a tetraplegic. He said seen others die in the outdoors, he said.

He hasn't stopped his own adventures either. Last year, after designing his own paraglider, he set off solo from Port Hills in Christchurch.

Unable to use his hands, he controlled the paraglider through his shoulders and triceps. It was his way of showing the public - and the tourism industry - what was possible.

"If my body can do it, anybody can do it."

Attitude Leadership Award

Tim Fairhall has around $10,000 in his Kiwisaver account. He earned it by working part-time at the Countdown supermarket in Te Atatu for 15 years.

But under the existing rules, he would probably never get the money. Fairhall has Down syndrome, which means he is likely to retire far earlier than the 65-year cut-off when Kiwisaver funds become available.

While medical advances mean people with Down syndrome can live longer lives, the average lifespan is around 60 years.

Fairhall, 40, took his case to Government - and won.

Law changes which allow people with life-shortening congenital conditions to withdraw their Kiwisaver early are expected to benefit 1000 people.

Tim Fairhall with his mother Joan at home in Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring
Tim Fairhall with his mother Joan at home in Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring

Fairhall's mother Joan, who was at his side as he lobbied at a Parliament select committee, said he would use the Kiwisaver money to see friends and family in Italy and Canada when he retired in the next few years.

"It's been a long-held dream" she said. "... He can access that money and go on his trip before his joints start to run out, while he's still active."

Fairhall is also involved in A Supported Life, which assists people with learning disabilities.

Attitude Employee Award

Gavin Rolton, from Wellington was hired by healthcare company Drake Medox in 2014.

He had not worked in nine years after being paralysed in a diving accident. He learned quickly, and was recently promoted to sales manager. He is now among the company's top performers.

"Gavin's secret for success is empathy and grit - and showing people that a disability does not have to define what you are capable of," his citation for the Attitude Awards said.

Rolton is also the captain of New Zealand's wheelchair rugby team, the Wheel Blacks.

Attitude Youth Spirit Award

Gabby Wright is New Zealand's - and possibly the world's - first wheelchair umpire.

After she was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis, a spinal cord disorder, she remained determined to stay on the netball court in some form.

A representative-level netballer, she had once dreamed of playing for the Silver Ferns.

Through a mixture of grit and determination she trained as an umpire and made her first umpiring appearance in June at the Howick Pakuranga Netball Centre.

"When life gets you down, you just have to get strong," she told the Herald in 2016. "And I remember the quote from Finding Dory 'Just keep swimming'. So every time I feel sad I remember that quote."

Gabby Wright, who became a netball umpire after getting a condition which stopped her from walking. Pictured are Vanessa Wright, Gabby, Clinton Wright and Felicity Wright. Photo / Doug Sherring
Gabby Wright, who became a netball umpire after getting a condition which stopped her from walking. Pictured are Vanessa Wright, Gabby, Clinton Wright and Felicity Wright. Photo / Doug Sherring

Attitude Leadership Award

Wilson, from Auckland, was the only power lifter to represent New Zealand at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi this year, winning four silver medals. He has also been selected as a Global Messenger for the Olympics, through which he promotes the event and fundraises for the New Zealand team.

Special Olympics powerlifter James Wilson, a finalist in the Attitude Awards. Photo / Supplied
Special Olympics powerlifter James Wilson, a finalist in the Attitude Awards. Photo / Supplied

Attitude Making a Difference Award

Gibson, a former dairy farmer and musician, is a long-time advocate for disabled people. He has focused on inclusive education, recognition for disabled parenting, and lobbied for an inquiry into historic abuse of disabled people.

He was the first Disability Rights Commission at the Human Rights Commission, and has now been appointed as one of the commissioners of the Royal Commission of Historical Abuse in State Care.

Former Disability Rights Commissioner Paul Gibson. Photo / Mark Mitchell.
Former Disability Rights Commissioner Paul Gibson. Photo / Mark Mitchell.

Attitude Spirit of Attitude Award

Biggeman, who has Down syndrome, is a professional photographer who has presented exhibitions in New Zealand and Bolivia, and won a major award in London. He speaks Spanish, English and Portuguese, is learning French. And he has found time to become a competitive swimmer, representing New Zealand in events here and in Australia organised by the Down Syndrome Swimming Organisation.

Professional photographer Carlos Biggeman. Photo / Supplied
Professional photographer Carlos Biggeman. Photo / Supplied