The first year after a car crash which left her in a wheelchair was tough for Kalolaine Manako, and the approach of some social workers she dealt with didn’t help.
“It got to a point where I found that not many social wokers understood,” she says.
“They’d say ‘yeah I understand where you’re coming from’ while they’re still walking. To me, it felt like it was just intimidating, seeing them walking and saying they understand, but they don’t.”
So she decided to do something about it and enrolled in the Level 4 Manaaki Tangata Certificate in Bicultural Social Services programme at the Māngere campus of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.
And it’s changed her life.
“This course actually made me find myself,” she says.
“I was shy of going out in public, I used to stay home a lot because I found that everybody looked at me because I’m in a wheelchair. Even people that knew me looked at me differently.
“But once I came to this course it made me realise that I’m me and I don’t have to change for everybody to accept me as I am. If you don’t accept me, that’s fine but that’s your problem.
“So you learn a lot about yourself and one of the kaiako said that you can’t go out and help someone else if you’re not okay, and that’s so true.”
However, it didn’t come without its challenges, particularly at noho marae, when Kalo would worry about accessibility.
“Every time I’d go to new places I’d wonder if its accessible but now, I’m like, you’re not going to find out until you get there so when I go I literally problem solve as I go to get access.”
Kalo says the bicultural aspects of the course had also opened her eyes.
“I was familiar with my Tongan cuture but learning about other cultures has been really helpful. Obviously I don’t know their whole background but just knowing the basics of different bicultural aspects helps me as a person to understand others.”
Kalo wants to put her new skills to use to help others in the disabled community, particularly those with injuries like hers.
“I hope to go back to the spinal unit or anywhere within the disabiliy sector of the social services industry. Basically I just want to go out there and help out those with disabilities, particularly those people with spinal cord injuries because it’s not something easy that you take in just a day, it’s something that you have to live with,” she says.
“I was just looking at how I can help and how I can put my experience out there to help others and just tell them that it’s okay to not be okay and it doesn’t mean that when you’re told that you’ll never walk again that it’s the end of the world. If you’ve been there and experienced it, it makes things a bit easier, it just makes things more understandable between you and whoever you’re working with.”
She also wants to be a role model for her whānau and that’s what the course has done for her.
“I wanted to prove to my children that regardless that mummy’s in a wheelchair it’s still possible to catch your dreams.”