I was sharing our series about 30 women & gender diverse folks in tech with friends on the internet, when I got introduced to Wainui. "She is a young kick-ass wāhine in tech, you should chat to her!". After exchanging a few messages, I felt this warmth and excitement from her and asked if she'd like to share her journey with us too. Wainui's interview is vulnerable, real and honest. It reflects the realities of being in spaces that are not designed well for the myriad of different needs in our society. Wainui talks about her disability advocacy work, developer job at Catalyst IT, Māori identity, tech sector, conference organisations and what makes her feel empowered. This interview is freaking wonderful, enjoy!
I didn’t get glasses until I was about 18 months old. So I was a very cautious baby and learnt to walk without being able to see more than a step in front of me. I would stick to my mother’s side and avoid going and playing with other kids.
As a child I was pretty happy but was always worrying about everything. I was pretty shy and didn’t really feel comfortable talking to anyone until I knew them well.
I liked doing things such as playing netball, performing arts like drama, dancing and singing classes. I also did horse riding and music lessons. When I was a teenager I did cheerleading, volleyball and netball. So I had pretty good hand-eye coordination and was pretty physically “able”.
I often got asked why I looked so tired or looked high, or was grumpy, I just had eye problems. But this became part of my identity and how people saw me and then it became how I saw myself.
Teachers would also tell me off for rolling my eyes at them, which I wasn’t actually doing. School camp was hard when I didn’t have my mum with me as I always had difficulty seeing at night time and also some activities were hard for me if they involved something that could cause my glasses or contacts to fall off.
I never thought that my vision would be as big of an issue as it is today. I thought when I had spent a few years working I would be able to buy a nice car that I would be able to drive around in. I thought I would be able to be independent and do normal everyday tasks easily. I thought I would be able to go anywhere in the world by myself and be confident and okay.
I have had to come to terms with the fact that I actually can’t do a lot of these things now, at least in the way I thought I would be able to.
Being disabled was never a part of my self-identity growing up. I think I was always encouraged to just be as normal as possible and try to come up with ways to make my eyesight better. I never considered the idea of embracing the fact that my ability to see was different from others and how I could actually use this to my advantage.
I think not being able to see very well helped me to challenge and to develop my brain. I have to have a map of where things are in my head, rather than relying on my eyes to see them. I always had to work a little bit harder.
I also never had a true passion for my Māori culture, I always felt like my mother “forced” it on me and I wanted to rebel against it. I was embarrassed to be Māori and held a lot of internal racism for many years. I grew up in a pretty non-Māori community and didn’t have a lot to do with my culture in my general day to day life. I was always exposed to things such as going to marae but I just sort of treated these things like annoying things I had to occasionally do because my mum said so.
It wasn’t really until I left home and moved cities that I started to feel there was something missing in my life and that I wanted to reclaim my identity as a Wāhine Māori.
I have since slowly come to terms with my culture and grown a huge respect for it. I can understand now all of the things my mother said to me when I was growing up and I feel like I can soon begin my haerenga (journey). It is hard though because even though I have finally opened myself up to it, that comes with a lot of pain, a lot of mamae. It was almost easier to ignore it but I can’t do that anymore. I have a desire within me to connect to my culture.
I love the tech industry. I love being a developer and finding solutions to problems. I love creating more efficient processes in my everyday life. I think this is because I have to be quite organised as I lack the ability to see certain things so I have to be organised in knowing where they are. For example, I need to leave my cane in a certain place in my apartment, otherwise I wouldn't be able to find it if I needed to leave the house very quickly.
I like being able to have the skills to just create something that I need or that someone needs. I enjoy being able to use technology to solve so many issues in our world; using logic to create more efficient processes. But what I think we really need to address is the lack of diversity in the industry. I believe this is where a lot of the ways that tech is being misused comes from.
We need different voices and minds in the industry so that people from underrepresented communities can be part of the solution to problems. Technology should ultimately benefit people, but we need diversity in the industry so that technology can benefit all people.
Having a team that fully supports me in everything that I do is the best thing. My team is there to support me with my work, as well as with other things I am interested in or passionate about including accessibility and Te Ao Māori. They are always willing to support me with my health as well.
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The best part was just being part of creating a safe environment for people to enjoy and to learn, as well as make connections with others who share similar interests. I also liked supporting other young women to thrive.
Some of the greatest conferences I’ve been to are the ones that make tech or info security seem less scary and that are not so aimed at the stereotypical cis straight male audience. I really enjoyed Purplecon for this aspect, it was fun and friendly and had glitter and bubble tea and was just a very relaxed environment.
Being a Māori woman with a disability has often made me feel like a minority. I can feel like the more ways I am different from “the norm”, the more I fall into the category of being “lesser”. I get embarrassed about being different. It takes a lot to overcome these feelings, especially with all the racism and other horrible things in this world.
When I was growing up, people often made rude comments about the fact that I was Māori and it’s just hard to then have to have another reason for people to think I’m not good enough. I think this is why I always tried to hold onto the fact that I was academically intelligent. I feel like I used this as a shield and used it as my identity. I was sucked into the academic, institutional way of thinking that if you aren’t educated you aren’t good enough.
I feel as if I am vulnerable and unsafe in public with things like roads and cars. I also feel like I am constantly being looked at and watched. I also get a lot of people speak to me about the fact that I’m using a cane and often these things aren’t nice. Sometimes people are lovely though.
I hope we can change the preconceptions around blind people, like people thinking that someone with a cane is totally blind.
Smartphones! I just love to be able to do a lot of the things you can do on a computer. A phone is a lot more accessible for me and I can see it a lot more easily.
My mother has been such an important person in my life. She has been so supportive with everything that I have wanted to pursue. She has taught me to not let anyone stand in my way. I admire my mother a lot, she has shown me how to be a strong woman. I don’t think I would have been able to push through all of the obstacles in my life without her constant support and guidance.
It took me so long to figure out what I wanted to do. My identity didn’t really align with what a stereotypical IT person is. It is also hard to be in an environment that is so dominated by men, who do things like gaming and coding in their spare time.
It’s quite exhausting having to constantly ask for things as my needs are different, having to advocate for myself everyday - to all people, from strangers to my family.
Even more exhausting when I don’t advocate for myself and have to struggle through things.
Professional race car driver, because my eyesight might be better in this alternate universe...
During lockdown, I was able to take a step back from the world and look within myself. It was a good chance for me to understand myself and to really get all of my life admin sorted. I started journaling around my health, mood, thoughts and feelings, food, sleep and medication. I have learnt to seize opportunities as they come and get out and about in the world, because you never know when we might go into lockdown.
Honestly I feel like my self care is lacking at the moment. I feel lazy and as if I’m not fuelling my body the best that I could be. However, the one thing that I am getting a lot better at is knowing my boundaries and the limits that my body has. I understand that I need to rest more than other people. I think this is self care and I am proud of myself for this. I don’t know but I have been trying to figure out how to get information and entertainment from things that don’t require seeing like audiobooks and podcasts. I have also started learning braille! This is to make sure I can stop struggling and start to enjoy myself…
Being Wāhine Māori makes me feel empowered. The fact that I have a Computer Science degree and that I have a job as a Software Developer makes me feel pretty bad-ass. Especially because I’m a Māori woman and I have low vision. Having the skills to work on things like digital accessibility, and making a big difference for people. Inspiring other young wāhine to pursue their STEM interests!