People with disabilities and their advocates are looking to 2017 as a year of progress and change. They're hoping greater awareness will lead to more opportunities for people whose physical condition or illness could affect their work lives. 48 Hours reporter Dawn Picken talked to locals with disabilities about overcoming obstacles and succeeding on the job.

Jane Butler's perseverance got her through cooking school after she was initially rejected for an apprenticeship. The 52-year-old Rotorua resident was born profoundly deaf. She learned to read lips, though found it tough to decipher French cooking terminology. It didn't stop her from passing exams and progressing in her career. She now chefs at Whare Aroha Care in Rotorua.

Jane told me via email that a cochlear implant has made a significant difference to her work life. While she hasn't felt discriminated against because of deafness, she says people fail to understand her disability.

"Some become frustrated and impatient, particularly repeating themselves to make themselves understood. Little things like face to face allows me to lip read, providing they don't put their hands across their face."


Jane says she wants to be included, not excluded, and feels her employer has been fantastic and supportive. She's married with two grown sons who are also deaf and have cochlear implants. She writes, "We want to be included at all levels. Take time to understand the disability. It's frustrating for us, too!"

NEWLIFE: BrianBullas of Papamoa retrained as an IT technician after a snowboarding accident left him paralysed. He works for the Tauranga City Council as a lead software developer.
NEWLIFE: BrianBullas of Papamoa retrained as an IT technician after a snowboarding accident left him paralysed. He works for the Tauranga City Council as a lead software developer.

Another Bay of Plenty employee who has overcome barriers is Brian Bullas. I meet him on a sunny Tuesday morning in Red Square.

The 40-year-old wheels himself into Tauranga's BRAVO, where, for the first time, I notice a ramp bridging a small gap between the footpath and the cafe. "Not all these places will put a ramp in," he tells me later over a chai tea.

"Older buildings were not designed for people with disabilities. People may have a single step to get in, which they don't think is a big deal. But it's the difference between me getting in and not getting in."

Brian was paralysed from mid-chest in a snowboarding crash in Canada almost 10 years ago. Back then, he was a hotel reservations manager. After the accident, he moved to Tauranga and retrained as an IT technician.

He says his employers, including Cucumber Software and current employer Tauranga City Council, have been good about ensuring he'd have an accessible workplace. "When I was first hired, they were concerned maybe they weren't up to scratch. So they actually got me to go around and see if I could get everywhere."

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Jane Butler, left, and Workbridge employment consultant Barbara Jamieson-Tucker. Photo/ Ben Fraser
Jane Butler, left, and Workbridge employment consultant Barbara Jamieson-Tucker. Photo/ Ben Fraser

I visit the building above the Spring Street Arcade where Brian manages a team of software developers. The purpose-built space sits on a single level, with doorways wide enough for wheelchairs. Desks lift and lower with a button push. A microwave, table and the coffee machine sit low enough for Brian to use.

In a previous council space on Devonport Rd, Brian says the kitchen was inaccessible before his employer fixed it. "It was down some stairs, so they ended up knocking a wall out and putting a ramp in for me, as well. They've been really good, it's been an easy process for both companies." The, husband, father of a 9-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl says everyone at work treats him like a regular person. "That's one of the things I love about the job - I'm on an even sort of keel with everybody."

Brian says he often acts as educator, teaching what accessibility means for him. He suggests changes when needed. "We did a team building exercise where at first they wanted to do, like, three-legged races and that sort of stuff and I was like, yeah, uh, that's not really good for me. It's kind of hard to tie someone to one of my wheels. Instead we ended up building a bunch of bikes and then we donated the bikes to charity. So I thought that was a good compromise."

His biggest issue with disability happens outside work, when unauthorised people use wheelchair car parks. He recalls a confrontation last June with a woman at Papamoa's Palm Beach Plaza. "She parked in a wheelchair spot right in front of me, so I parked in behind her and she came out and started yelling at me to get the F out of her way. And I was like, I'm just gonna be a minute, which is kind of the excuse everyone gives me, right? ... She kicked in the front quarter panel of my car."

Brian continues to be active, playing tennis and handball with his son, hand cycling with mates, and playing wheelchair basketball. He says there's not much he can't do, including visit the beach with his all-terrain-drive power chair. The can-do attitude carries over into work life, too. Brian encourages any employer to give someone with a disability the benefit of doubt. "Don't judge a person by what they may look like physically, or what wheelchair they have or crutches, just judge them by their merits and their efforts."

Disability in the Workplace
A 2013 Statistics New Zealand survey reported 61 per cent of disabled people aged 15-64 had paid jobs. One-third were managerial or professional roles.

Seventy four per cent of those who were unemployed said they would like to work if a job were available. The report shows disabled adults tend to fare worse in the labour market than non-disabled adults. Disabled adults were less likely to be employed and had higher rates of unemployment. Those who had jobs were more likely to work in low-skilled occupations and tended to have lower incomes than non-disabled adults.

Paul Curry, vice-president of the Disabled Persons Assembly Bay of Plenty says one of his goals is working with other organisations to reduce duplication of services.

He also serves on a committee for Workbridge, which bills itself as the largest New Zealand-owned employment agency for disabled people. The not-for-profit receives government funding to match disabled persons with employers.

Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller, during a meeting of an initiative called EmployAbility, last week said there was evidence disabled employees performed as well as others in the right job.

"They have fewer health and safety concerns, take less sick days, stay in jobs for longer and their dedication will increase the overall performance of your business." Mr Muller said when he was chief executive of Apata, he failed to reflect on opportunities to hire disabled people. "There were absolutely jobs there for them but I lacked the imagination."
Barriers Remain
Workbridge employment consultant Barbara Jamieson-Tucker says her organisation and others supporting disabled people have done a lot of work the past decade to make employers more disability aware. "... to some extent this has helped, but there are still many barriers against disabled employment to be broken down."

Mrs Jamieson-Tucker says some larger employers such as Z Energy have encouraged retailers to employ disabled people, but new Health and Safety Regulations have made it more difficult for employers to accommodate disabled persons. "It has never been easy for disabled persons to find work ten years ago or today." She says continued education and conversations with employers will help more people with disabilities get jobs.