ack when 24-year-old Peter O'Flaherty was still getting used to being paralysed from the neck down, some mates put his name down for a job with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.
Peter scoffed at them. "I told them they were bloody stupid; that no one would want to employ me."
He was wrong. Thirty-six years later, Peter O'Flaherty retired from a full working life – an example of someone who has not let disadvantage get in the way, and an inspiration to the disengaged teenagers and unemployed people he worked with during the last seven years of his working life.
For the final years of his employment Peter was involved with agriculture training programmes targeting 16 and 17-year-olds and the long-term unemployed. Many come from disadvantaged backgrounds and faced long-term benefit dependence.
Work and Income programme co-ordinator Erima Mitchell worked with Peter. “Peter always said that if he could work in a wheelchair then anyone could work”, she said. “How can you argue with that? Any excuses the trainees came up with as to why they couldn’t work, just didn’t compare.”
Back in 1973, Rotorua-born Peter was 23 and into the fourth year of a Bachelor of Agricultural Science degree at Massey University in Palmerston North. He was one of the lads, enjoying study and student life.
Peter was playing rugby when the scrum collapsed and he took the force. He suffered a C4/C5 spinal fracture and life changed forever. Peter was paralysed from the neck down.
There was no ACC back then. Peter was determined not to rely on his family for the rest of his life. "Friends, family, the faculty ... they all said there was no reason why I couldn't go back to university. Then they set about making it possible".
After four and a half months of treatment and rehabilitation, Peter returned to Massey three days a week. Lectures were moved to the ground floor. Lecturers taped lectures and classmates carbon-copied their notes.
Part-way through 1974 Peter's classmates told him they had put his name down for work with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF).
With little use of his arms, he typed with a mouth stick. Peter began work with the MAF in December 1974 and on his first day his office colleagues asked if he could dial a phone… these were the days of no push button phones, no cell phones, no voice operated equipment. Two cotton reels, string and a wire coat hanger helped adapt a phone for Peter’s use. The headset was connected to a length of alkathene pipe to sit at the height of Peter's ear and a dictaphone was modified with a series of levers.
Peter’s job as a farm advisory officer also took him into the field, and when he was appointed MAF Policy Agent he began to travel extensively throughout the regions.
"As with my office mates, farmers approached the challenge of getting me places with the same level of creativity", he laughs. "My theory is that nowhere is impossible – some destinations just take more planning than others.”
After working for 36 years, Peter O'Flaherty has retired – and he loves it. Apart from the odd hiccup, he's the healthiest he's been in years. He takes an active interest in his community as a member of the Rotorua Access committee, Lakes Health Disability Support Advisory Committee and the Rotary Club of Rotorua Lakes.
Nowadays, technology has advanced to the stage where Peter can live independently in his own home. With 57 care hours funded by Ministry of Health for personal care, meal preparation, shopping and community involvement, Peter is independent, and intends staying that way.
Peter and the NZ Rugby Foundation first connected in 2003. Peter is grateful for the assistance the Foundation has provided over the last few years.
- First published in Work and Income Magazine
NZ Rugby Foundation
Sport Auckland House Level 4, Alexandra Park Function Centre, Gate B, Greenlane Road West, Epsom, Auckland