by MARTIN de JONG
Bronwyn Hayward, ONZM, always wanted to be a ballerina. When her primary school teacher asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied, “A ballerina”. The teacher said, “Bronwyn, disabled people don’t dance”. Bronwyn believed the teacher.
Years later, she auditioned for a play directed by Wellington actor and director Jim Moriarty for Te Rākau Hua O Te Wao Tapu Trust.
“I didn’t realise there was dancing within the play,” said Bronwyn. “In our third week of rehearsals, we started to prepare some dancing — the choreography, and all the usual things to do with dance, and I said to Jim, ‘But Jim, I don’t dance’.
“Like with any disagreements in Te Rakau, we, the cast and crew, sat round in a circle and talked it out. Everything was sorted together — and on opening day and for hundreds of shows thereafter, I danced off the beat of the music. There were eight of us in the play, and four of us danced to the beat of the music, and four of us danced off the beat. Because I couldn’t guarantee that I’d hit the beat every time. I’d hit it some of the time, but not all of the time.”
The show, “Mana”, toured to almost every high school in the country.
From there, things took off. Bronwyn joined “Touch Compass”, an integrated dance company bringing together disabled and non-disabled dancers.
“That’s when I learnt to fly to become an aerialist.” She remembers “the absolute sensation of flying and because you’re going around and you’re picking up more force, you can actually pick up heavy men.” Which she did. “It’s phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal.”
One of her favourite images is of herself swooping down from above, wearing a wide black velvet dress, and working with a male dancer on the floor, in the production “Grace”.
Bronwyn created a number of dances herself. One was called “Wheelchair-bound”, playing on
“I’ve never been wheelchair-bound. A wheelchair is something that enables me to mobilise. gIf you have a car, it doesn’t bound you. It enables you to go where you need to go. So I did an entire dance based on ‘wheelchair-bound’ where I was bound to a wheelchair in the opposite meaning, i.e., I did handstands on top of the wheelchair… now that’s a different way of looking at ‘wheelchair-bound’.”
She also wrote, produced and starred in the short dance film “Beauty”, supported by New Zealand Ballet.
As well as flying high on stage, Bronwyn has campaigned for the rights of people with disabilities. While working as a senior kaituitui (disability advisor) for Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA), she set up a national network of kaituitui.
“I would do a lot of advocacy with younger disabled people who, in theory, would go back to their communities and share with their communities what they had learnt.” But they needed more structure and training.
“I selected kaituitui — disabled people who had the skills — from all around New Zealand, and I would bring them together in Wellington, and use other disabled people who had a lot of mana, to co-teach, or to teach a particular section. . . They [the younger people] would then go back to their communities for three months at a time, where they had specific tasks to do. And after that three-month period of time, they came
back to Wellington and everyone reported on how they’d been going, what had been happening. It was about accountability.”
Accountability — from wider society and the Church — is something she is still seeking.
She highlights inequities in disability support that may be based on the nature and origins of a person’s disability, even for people who may have similar needs.
“As a disabled person, there are many ways — complex ways — of getting support, depending on the cause of disability. If I had an accident, then I would receive rehabilitation in order to get me back to work, I would receive 80 per cent of my previous salary.”
But for people with a congenital disability, there is not the same level of support. She has seen “time and time again” the devaluing of people with disabilities — through legislation, through different levels
of financial support, and through the places we build, including our churches.
“I’ve done a number of workshops within the Catholic environment,” she said, “but a big critique I have of many Catholic churches is their inaccessibility for disabled people. If I can’t get in the door, I don’t feel welcome.”
She went to the funeral of a disabled gentleman who had been very outspoken on this matter.
“When I went to his funeral, I was absolutely delighted to see that there was a ramp at the front. I was like: ‘At last!’ and so I went to find the parish priest and congratulate him, . . . and he said, ‘Oh, we didn’t do it for disabled people, it was because the undertakers kept complaining.’”
At another friend’s funeral, there were only steps at the front; Bronwyn had to use a ramp at a side door.
“It turned out that I was entering the main church one row from the front row of seats, and I was so embarrassed: here I am, coming to a dear friend’s funeral, forced to go in the side door, which brings me
out where everyone can see me! It was so humiliating.”
“When ramps are put in at the side, is that what the Church feels about us? That we’re not worthy to enter from the front the same as everyone else does? Do mothers, families with prams, elderly people who use walkers, walking sticks, do we not have the right, the same rights as everyone else? And that would be my challenge for the Catholic community and the wider community.”
On May 5, Bronwyn Hayward was invested as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to people with disabilities and the arts. She is delighted that the award recognises her contributions to both these sectors.
The citation in the New Year Honours 2022 listing noted that she was born with the spinal condition diastemietiamyelia, and that she has been a life-long advocate for vulnerable persons, disability issues and mental health, in both paid and voluntary capacities.