Evie Randall is a smart, straight-A student but has been turned down for 40 jobs.
The 19-year-old is in her third trimester of her IT diploma at Wellington Institute of Technology (WelTec) and hopes to soon sink her teeth into the gaming industry - a "male-dominated" world in which she has long yearned to make her mark.
Programming websites, designing games, servicing hardware – it would all come naturally to Evie, who lives in Lower Hutt.
But before all that, she would just like a part-time job in a local business.
The pandemic has made employers more cautious in their hiring, which is not good news for people, like Evie, with learning needs.
A lover of music, art and gaming, Evie is also neuro-atypical.
"I was diagnosed with ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] when I was almost 2 years old and I believe I was non-verbal until about 4 or 5," she said.
"And then when I went to college I got diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety."
Through the struggle finding work, at times Evie had wondered whether she should mention her disability when applying for jobs.
"[But] it will affect me because sometimes it might take me a little bit longer to learn certain things.
"It can be a bit tricky meeting new people but I'll get used to it over time."
Evie's mum Hanna Randall said disclosing her disability was to ensure she would have support and understanding from an employer.
"Once she can master something she's great, but no one has given her the chance to prove herself.
"As soon as they see something that's not typical on your CV they put you to the side.
"We've even asked locally in the last year and a half and no one really wants to give her a chance.
"But she's so clever and able, it's just a little bit frustrating really."
Randall could also see the effects of the pandemic on Evie's search for employment.
"There's a lot more people looking for part-time work – a lot of people lost their jobs in Covid – so the competition for work is quite high.
"And will an employer choose someone with a disability over someone who doesn't have a disability?"
WelTec Disability adviser Rebecca Burns has known Evie throughout her studies and describes her as a "quick learner, a team player and personable".
"She's really committed, hugely motivated, super friendly. I'm so impressed with her, socially she has come so far," she said.
"I'm so proud of her and I know academically she's doing very well in terms of her grades – the tutors speak very highly of her as well.
"It is surprising that she hasn't been able to get herself [a job], and it's a real shame."
Like many young people in New Zealand, Evie needed work to pay off her $7500 student loan. But she also wanted her own independence and money, to learn new things and get out of the house.
Her only taste of employment had been an eight-week programme through Hell's Pizza, in which young people with disabilities were given work experience and paid for their time.
It had been Evie's first pay cheque. She bought food with friends at her break from uni.
"She rang me and said 'am I allowed to spend my pay?' and I was like 'it's yours, you can do what you like with it'," her mother said.
"One thing I noticed, when Evie was in paid employment was the sense of self-worth increased a lot, and just the motivation to be at work, and the excitement of learning something new, but having the support so the anxiety wasn't there."
Evie was supported by an organisation called Choices NZ, established in 2019 through IHC, dedicated towards easing disabled people into employment and removing the barriers – real or perceived – between them and the fulfilling work they craved.
Considering nearly one in four New Zealanders had a disability or ongoing health condition - whether employers were aware of it or not – it was not a group that could be ignored in the workforce, said facilitator Rosie McRobie.
Well before the pandemic, the Human Rights Commission reported disabled women to be some of the most marginalised in New Zealand's labour market, in their 2018 Tracking Equality report. And as a Māori woman, Evie is part of another minority group with known barriers to accessing work.
But Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero said the pandemic could also be seen as a chance to remove barriers to employment.
"The pandemic recovery is a great opportunity to remove barriers to employment for disabled people, through workplaces becoming more flexible and allowing people to work from home," she said.
"Disabled people bring creativity and resilience to the workforce, through our experience at problem-solving in our day-to-day lives."
Choices NZ had been supporting Evie since June 2020. Alongside assisting people in finding work, McRobie said much of her role was in dispelling myths employers often had about hiring disabled people.
"The first is that providing accommodation for people with disabilities is expensive," she said.
"Only 10 per cent of people with disabilities require modification to their work area or equipment to help them to do their job.
"And more often than not there are government subsidies to assist with that."
Another myth was that disabled people were a greater health and safety risk, or would take too many sick days.
"Individuals with disabilities have coping mechanisms and ways of managing their health, because they have them throughout their life," she said.
"[They] have an 85 per cent less absenteeism rate than people without disabilities, which is an astounding statistic that really challenges employees.
"There's a perception around the word disability that it's too much of a risk or it's just too difficult … we don't have time, we don't have the resources.
"That's where a service like Choices NZ can step in, we can assist the individual on the job in those initial months of seeking employment."
Choices NZ national manager Toni Griffiths said the organisation had seen a huge increase in need due to the pandemic.
"They are a really vulnerable group, particularly if you've got both a disability and a health need. They want the opportunity to work.
"Choices NZ has 8 facilitators but they're working with over 200 people – that's a lot of people and we're only scraping the surface.
"We know we could easily do a lot more with more staff, the need is huge."
McRobie said while the pandemic had exacerbated employment struggles, they also reflected the barriers people with disabilities faced every day.
"For people with existing barriers to employment, the pandemic has just offered an additional barrier.
"The additional barrier is spoken about but those day-to-day barriers that people are facing with regards to employment - whether coronavirus is here or not - aren't spoken about enough.
"There's some loyal, committed individuals that I have the privilege of supporting who are ready to give so much to their work.
"And Evie is just the most fantastic young woman … I can't wait for an employer to see what she has to offer."