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From dropout to Doctorate

16 July 2013

A high school dropout, Dr Hickey, who grew up in Taranaki, didn’t ever consider a tertiary education – let alone gaining a doctorate.

Dr Huhana Hickey can now claim to be the first Māori woman, second Māori and first disabled person to get a PhD in law from Waikato University.

“I didn’t actually think I would go to university,” she says. “It wasn’t something my family did. I was a girl. I was expected to get married and have kids.”

Instead, Dr Hickey became a nurse aid and then embarked on nursing training. But that was cut short because her multiple sclerosis started to show and she was not allowed to continue nursing training.

So Dr Hickey had to look for other career options. With no School Certificate or University Entrance she was surprised to find herself accepted to Waikato University, where she initially started out studying psychology. The educational journey took hold, one thing led to another and Dr Hickey ended up studying law.

She then went on to complete an LLM (with distinction) and a PhD in law and tikanga Māori. For her doctorate, she undertook a legal analysis exploring national and international treaties and perspectives from a Māori disability framework.

Her study looked at traditional Māori views on disabilities or whānau hauā, which, she explains, translates to being more like family members with a unique difference than the English term disabled.

She also looked at how colonisation and Christianity have altered the way many Māori view disabilities in a contemporary context.

Positioned with both academic and personal insight into the issues facing the disabled community and the indigenous disabled community, she runs workshops, speaks at seminars and writes articles on the issues faced by this sector of society.

Dr Hickey was the indigenous peoples\' representative for the International Disability Association steering group caucus during the development of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and is involved with the International Disability Association international networks.  She also sits on the Human Rights Review Tribunal and is a practising lawyer.

Issues faced by disabled legal community

The issues facing people with disabilities do not go away with higher education.

In fact, Dr Hickey believes the legal profession, and the need for supervision for the first three years before practising on own account, make it particularly difficult for disabled legal graduates to become solicitors, as they can find it harder to obtain employment than abled bodied graduates.

“For me, it’s not simply about having things accessible. You can say ‘well the courtroom is accessible’ – it’s actually about inclusion,” Dr Hickey says.

“So we need more disabled lawyers, for instance. We don’t have many and why? Because they are not being included by the legal fraternity.”

She cites her first fishing trip in three decades as an example of the difference between inclusion and accessibility.

“I had never been on a boat in all [30 years]. The boat was fully adapted and it took 10 people in wheelchairs,” she says.

“I caught four snappers, and I mean I am talking about doing something that’s normal for the first time in so many years, and I was just naturally included. So it wasn’t just about accessibility. It could have been accessible but they may not have wanted to include me.”

Dr Hickey explains it is about a mind-shift surrounding disabled people.

“We are not just clients, we’re also practitioners. I would like to see a disabled judge. I would like to see a judge with disabilities wheeling up to the podium there, not always having non-disabled judges overseeing disabled cases,” she says.

Last updated on the 30th January 2017