A Life Story: Alexia Pickering, disability activist, dies aged 86

Alexia Pickering, disability access advocate.
Cameron Burnell

Alexia Pickering, disability access advocate.

Alexia Helen Jean Rae Pickering, disability campaigner, b May 20, 1930, Petone; m Neville (dec) 3d, 1s, m George Matthewson (diss); d. April 27, 2017, aged 86.

Alexia Pickering had a deep sense of justice and equality. Harnessing those traits she fought in the corner of those with disabilities advocating in the halls of power for a more inclusive society.

She steadfastly refused to let her disability limit her life. Despite resistance from some, she married and raised a family of four children, while campaigning for a better deal for the disabled.

Disability activist Alexia Pickering
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Disability activist Alexia Pickering

She became recognised as one of the leading experts on access for people with disabilities. Through Accessible Options, which Pickering set up in 1993, she worked for decades consulting and advising to make sure there was suitable disabled access in new and existing buildings. Her work took her all over the country as she determined to make the country accessible for her fellow New Zealanders and travellers with disabilities.

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Pickering was born with spina bifida in a nursing home in Petone in 1930.

Alexia Pickering with her family photographed in the 1970s.
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Alexia Pickering with her family photographed in the 1970s.

She was 10 months old when Dr (and later Sir) Alexander Gillies, an orthopaedic specialist, operated on her spine.

Her life was influenced hugely by Gillies, who had a particular interest in treating children with spina bifida and polio, and the surgeon became a lifelong friend. She lived with his family as a baby while having treatment at Wellington Hospital and maintained contact with him until his death in 1982.

Growing up, she never told people she was in a wheelchair because of spina bifida. 

"No-one knew what that was. I used to say I had polio, because people knew what that was, or I'd tell them that I had fallen off the roof," she said in a 2015 interview.

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Pickering was in and out of hospital for the first seven years of her life and was schooled in hospital or via correspondence at home.

When her parents finally got her into a mainstream school she thrived, and was eventually appointed head girl of Patea School.

She was awarded a scholarship to St Marys in Stratford but the school refused to accept her because she was disabled. So her parents negotiated with Hawera Technical High School which agreed she could take limited classes there. She topped every subject she took. 

She had fond memories of her time at high school and recalled the bigger lads "throwing me on the bus" and hanging her chair on the back. She swore these were great days, "the best of my life".

She had no further education and later said that not having any formal qualification after high school was more of a handicap to her than her disability.

She was grateful to her parents for not treating her any differently than her siblings.

"There was no treating me with kid gloves… I always say treat a child with disabilities the same as the other children. The only time you feel disabled is when you're treated as disabled," she once said.

Pickering loved music and in her early twenties sang live on National Radio.

Around this time she met Neville Pickering whom her father had brought home for dinner after a cricket match.

The pair instantly bonded over a shared interest in justice and social consciousness. They married but it took four years to convince authorities to let them adopt a child. They would eventually adopt three children and then, to her surprise, she became pregnant at the age of 38.

It was when her husband became a Labour MP and later the Mayor of Christchurch that Pickering became vocal about disabled access issues.

She came at the issue from her own experience of the barriers of her environment which stopped her from being independent and taking her place beside Neville in his role as Mayor. She recalls arriving at a function and discovering it was upstairs without wheelchair access.

She had learnt that using a wheelchair getting into places like Plunket, kindergarten and school teacher meetings wasn't always possible because of how these buildings were designed and built. This sparked the beginning of what was to be a lifetime spent lobbying, promoting and petitioning for people with disabilities in New Zealand.

When CCS Disability Action, one of the country's largest providers of disability services, asked her to participate in a seminar on architectural barriers, she knew she had much to contribute.

She went on to chair the Architectural Barriers Committee for ten years. She saw that ramps be introduced into buildings like libraries and schools. She successfully pushed for the lowering of kerbs around Christchurch and suitable access to events at the Commonwealth Games hosted by the city in 1974. 

"I became addicted to putting things right," she later recalled.

After the death of her husband in 1988, Pickering was employed as director of the Disability Resource Centre, which provides advocacy and support for the elderly and people with disabilities. 

She indulged in her love of travelling overseas, many times on her own. While in London she found a guidebook for people with restricted mobility that was so helpful she realised New Zealand needed something like it.

After two years of research during which she travelled the length and breadth of the country, she wrote an accommodation guide, Accessible New Zealand.

She was a founding member of the Disabled Persons Assembly, which had input into legislation such as the Building Act and the Human Rights Act, both of which affect everyday lives of disabled people.

In 2005 she was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to people with disabilities and the community.

She once told this newspaper a lot more education was required for the community to understand the needs of the disabled. 

"In 1975 we led the world," she said. "Now we're lagging behind."

In 2015 she was made an honorary life member of CCS Disability Action.

Pickering, who was actively pushing her message on disability access right up till a month before her death, has kept the rights of disabled people on the political and social agenda, the charity's chief executive David Matthews said. 

"She never gave up. She kept fighting. She knew if you stepped back and took the pressure off things would slip back to the bad old days. She was not in it for the limelight, she was in it to create a better world for the disabled, for everyone."

Sources: The Dominion Post, Pickering family, Christie Carswell, Accessible Options, CCS Disability Action

 - Stuff

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