Red Nicholson

Project Lead, Curative

Around a quarter of New Zealanders have a disability of some kind. Yet surprisingly, only half of them are employed.  Alumnus Red Nicholson is passionate about reversing that statistic.

Born with cerebral palsy, Red has spent the last seven years teaching Media Studies at Onehunga High School. Having used a wheelchair for most of his life, Red had hoped to use his experience of marginalisation to support young people to lift their expectations of what they could achieve.

“Growing up, I realised that many adults had quite low expectations of me. They saw my wheelchair, and that instantly shaped what they believed I was capable of. The experience of many young Māori and Pasifika students in our education system is similar, and I wanted to use my life story to help them realise they could achieve way beyond what someone else said they could”.

The reality, however, came as something of a surprise to Red.

“In the end it wasn’t so much what I taught them, as what they taught me. They didn’t need an inspirational story, they just needed a great teacher. The fact that I used a wheelchair was surprisingly inconsequential to them.”

Red describes his teaching career as a profound learning curve. He says that while being disabled might have made him ‘special’ growing up, the reality of the working world meant he had to very quickly adapt to a new professional environment, which came with its own set of challenges.

“One of the funny things about living in a world that actively side-lines disabled people is that you convince yourself that you have to work even harder than your able-bodied peers to get the same access to employment, education, relationships and so on. But that’s a fairly exhausting way to live, and you end up putting a crazy amount of pressure on yourself to be everywhere at once, make sure everyone likes you, and do everything really well.

And so, one of the biggest learnings for me over the past few years has been to say ‘no’ more often, and live life with more intention, not feeling like I have to do everything.”

Taking this philosophy to heart has resulted in a new career as Project Lead for a boutique creative agency Curative, tackling social issues and inspiring social change.

“I have always had a persistent curiosity and a passion for social justice. I’m also a firm believer in the power of stories to combat stereotypes and shift societal assumptions about what people are capable of achieving.”

Red says the move has allowed him to attempt to reset the conversation on what it means to be disabled.

“As young disabled kids, we’re sent a very clear message by society from an early age that being disabled is something you have to “rise above” or “defy,” when in actual fact, being disabled is a fundamental part of who I am. How much damage are we doing to our young people by framing their very existence as something to be miserable about? As a result, I’m influenced by those people who are living great lives, and who are unapologetic about their disability.”

Not ruling out the possibility of a political career in the future, Red says it would be an opportunity to further increase his advocacy for those who live with a disability.

“It’s clear to me that both local and central government do an abysmal job advocating for those with accessibility needs. This is largely due to a lack of representation: there are few individuals who identify as disabled sitting at those tables. While I’d be a reluctant politician, once you spend enough time sitting around thinking someone really ought to do something about that, you realise that at some point that someone might just have to be you!”