When he was 18 years old, Josh (now 25), from Christchurch was paralysed after a rare autoimmune disease called transverse myelitis damaged his spinal cord. After a month in ICU, he spent another five months in Christchurch’s Burwood Spinal Unit undergoing rehabilitation – and that’s where he realised he could use his own experience to help other spinal patients.

“I started volunteering [for the New Zealand Spinal Trust, based at Burwood Hospital] while I was in hospital because I wanted to come back but, in the end, I never left – I left hospital with a job,” Josh jokes.

Josh now works part time as a peer support worker for the New Zealand Spinal Trust, supporting patients living with a spinal cord impairment.

“It’s mostly about translating what the doctors and the rest of the hospital team are talking about,” explains Josh. “I also help patients adjust a bit and to learn other tricks that hospital can’t teach them, like pushing a supermarket trolley or carrying a coffee cup from the bench to the couch,” he says.

But that is not the only role keeping Josh busy – Josh juggles this with not one, but two, other part-time roles advocating for people living with disabilities.

One of these is his role as research assistant for the Burwood Academy Trust. “It’s about bringing people with disabilities into research at the beginning and making sure the research is going to make a difference for them,” Josh says.

Josh also has another part-time role as a special project coordinator for a Māori social enterprise Whānau Whanake, where he is helping to re-shape the content of a qualification for support workers.

“People look at me because I’m crazy – I have three jobs. But I do it because I love it and every day I’m lucky to be able to do it,” Josh says.

Josh moved into a one-bedroom, wheelchair-friendly Kāinga Ora home three months ago – and he is thriving in his new home.

He says having his own place has given him a greater sense of independence, and made his life easier. “I have this space and the freedom to take control of my own life again. To be able to come home to a house that takes all those issues [of accessibility] away from you is somewhat freeing.”

“I can get my Sunday coffee and I’m close to Kmart. Everything I need is just five minutes away and I can catch the bus to work just around the corner.

“It’s nice to have my own space. More often than not, people can come over for a drink on Friday, or they can just pop by. I can come home and do whatever I want to, and it’s great,” he says.

As a real ‘people-person’, Josh’s home is often busy with friends, family and neighbours popping by to visit – which is no surprise as his manager at the New Zealand Spinal Trust, Andrew Hall, says Josh has a special way with people.

“Being a peer support worker for people in the Spinal Unit is highly dependent on having the right person. The skills you need are very difficult skills to teach, some people have that naturally, Josh is one of those people.

“He’s had a number of challenges in his life, which could have crushed many people, but his challenges have empowered him,” Andrew says.

So what is it that drives Josh to do the amazing mahi he does?

“I know what it was like to receive the support when I was a patient and I know the impact that made for me personally, so the drive for me is to be able to recreate that for one person. Don’t change the entire world, but you can change one person’s world,” Josh says.

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Page updated: 20 September 2022