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Blind pakeha just one of the whanau on radio

Mar 16th, 2012 | By | Category: Diversity, Latest News, News

IMAGINE working at a Maori radio station when you are blind, pakeha, and don’t speak a word of Te Reo.

Now imagine that they are as proud as they can be to call you one of the whanau.

This is what it is like for David Piper, working as a show producer for Te Upoko o te Ika, New Zealand’s longest running iwi radio station.

When he walks in at 5:30pm to start work on political talkback show Torangapu, everyone, even the presenters live on air, calls out “kia ora, David”.

Well, except the one who calls him Chris.“He got the name wrong when I started here. It just kind of stuck,” says Mr Piper.

He settles into the production booth and starts planning timing and phone calls for the show, using a talking cellphone and a voice recorder to keep track of contacts.

The phone he uses is an ordinary desk phone, with no special equipment for the blind.

“The [equipment on the] desk is pretty foreign, but I can use the phone, and I’m sure with training I could use it all.”

Mr Piper relies on excellent spatial awareness and a memory for numbers, and has no trouble calling Parekura Horomia for tonight’s show.

He is one of the best things to ever happen to Te Upoko, says station manager Wena Tait.

“We’ve never had anyone like him. No iwi station has had a blind pakeha.

“We’re the first, and we’re proud of that,” she says.

Ms Tait recalls being asked to take him on as an intern during his study at Whitireia Polytechnic’s radio journalism school.

On being told that he was blind, her reaction was “So?”.

Ms Tait, or Auntie Wena to some of the station staff, considers Mr Piper a godsend, an opportunity to adapt to different people and welcome them to the whanau.

“How many people with a disability have their own show on mainstream radio?” asks Mr Piper.

With one in six Kiwis being disabled, it is not unreasonable to expect more representation on the airwaves.

He also hosts a half hour show on Access Radio called No Labels, with two other blind men, covering the “whole gamut” of disability issues.

“I’ve also produced in the past, about 10 years ago for the Breeze, doing their sport show when I still had sight.”

He was born with choroideremia, an inherited disease which causes degeneration of the retina and the choroid, a network of blood vessels in the eye, eventually leading to loss of vision.

 It was a matter of “when not if” he joined the Foundation for the Blind, doing so 12-13 years ago, but thought complete blindness wouldn’t happen to him he was in his 60’s or 70’s.

But 6 years ago, he found he lost his sight over a period of 6 months “It was just something that happened.

“Before I knew it I thought, hang on, I can’t see that TV anymore,” he says.

While most radio producers can talk to their presenters via their “cans” (headsets), Mr Piper cannot use the editing gear to do so, and has to go to the studio door to talk to host Moki Wagner (Or as Auntie Wena calls him, Apanui, after his iwi).

Mr Wagner was also contacted while arranging Mr Piper’s internship with the station by tutor Ana Tapiata.

The first thing he asked Ms Tapiata was ‘Is he Maori?’ She replied with ‘No, but he’s blind, so he knows what about having to fight for your rights’.

“Sweet as then,” said Mr Wagner.

Ms Tapiata says she chose Te Upoko because she knew they did a political show, which would work well with Mr Piper’s interests and strengths, and also that there would be mutual benefit to both him and the station.

“A large part of his success was due to David’s nature. He’s very open to being asked about being blind.”

She says when he initially applied for the radio course, he was turned down over concerns whether the tutors could get him through all the requirements.

He formally appealed the decline and they came to an agreement.

“In week two [of the course], he spoke to the class. After that he was just another member of the course who had his own needs just like everyone else.”

Ms Tapiata says it is heartening now to see him achieve at the other end of the course and calls the experience a learning curve for her.

Mr Piper calls himself “staunchly independent”, and feels uncomfortable if people try to do everything for him.

“I enjoy it here [at Te Upoko] because they let me do my own thing. When I’m on the phone, no-one ever figures out that I’m blind.”

The other staff respect his independence, although they do make sure to let him know if they move any furniture.

Ms Tait calls him fiercely independent, but in a respectful way.

“He’s special, he’s really comfortable with us. He’s ringa raupa. [Literally ‘calloused hands’, a very hard worker.]”

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