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  • Claire Freeman

FIGHTING/FAILING THE SYSTEM


The Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) is an incredible scheme, started in New Zealand in 1972. All taxpayers pay a levy which supports the scheme in the understanding that the state will provide 24-hour, no-fault insurance for all personal injury. In return, New Zealanders would give up the right to sue for any damages arising from personal injury.

My injury happened when I was 17 years old, my mother fell asleep while driving and consequently, I sustained a spinal cord injury to my neck. Being still at school and by all accounts, still a ‘child’, I was classified as ‘unemployed’ at the time of my accident so I did miss out on a lot of additional support such as vocational and potential income support. However, my basic needs were met under the scheme, so I received a wheelchair, housing modifications and medical supplies. I knew people who had their spinal impairments through cancer or a condition, and they were much worse off, having to fight to get their wheelchairs and equipment – consequently, I was extremely grateful to ‘be on ACC’.

After the years rolled by, that sense of gratitude, although still present, became mixed with confusion. While it was wonderful I was able to access the benefits available to me, it usually came at a price. Asking for anything was a battle, met with hostility from case managers who worked for ACC. I even had one case manager early on who told me how much I had ‘cost the country’ due to my accident. At the time, I felt very guilty and it prompted an early suicide attempt as I felt like a ‘burden to society’.

Three years ago, I had routine surgery to replace the metalwork that held my neck together. My vertebrae were crushing each other and the internal stabilising metalwork needed to be lengthened. It was a difficult time as it meant I would need at least 4 months off work, and I didn’t have enough leave. I didn’t qualify for support as I was a child at the time of my injury. I pleaded with my case manager but she was resolute – there was nothing ACC could do. I even told her it would mean losing my modified home I had just built and possibly my job, a job that had taken 5 years to finally get. I told her once again, I felt so distraught that suicidal thoughts had entered my head. She told me she didn’t care, rules were rules.

Luckily, a charity drive saw funds raised to get me through those months and once the media discovered my story, and I was to become front-page news, it took ACC one night to change their minds and say they would indeed support me after the surgery.

Ironically, the surgery was a disaster, the surgeon who admitted he shouldn’t have been operating, placed a screw into my spinal cord by accident causing further paralysis to my arms and it meant I would have to give up my job. Devastated by the outcome, I once again, picked up the pieces of my life and started to rebuild what I could. I knew I would need to study more to gain employment so enrolled in my PhD. Over the next three years, I would encounter more hostility and unjustified decisions that would impact my life in a negative way. Early on, I even managed to secure some work through the university, although that soon ended when I realised I would need to spend my time fighting the ‘system’. Even simple decisions about needing new wheels for my wheelchair became a problem.

My recent issue has been with payment for people who help me throughout my day to achieve independence through interdependence. Without warning, ACC stopped the payments and I was left with the uncomfortable situation of having no money to pay people who were supporting me, people I needed in order to survive.

Its an ongoing fight, and it is a fight, yet it shouldn’t be. ACC was set up to support people like myself, yet I have always felt a sense of guilt asking for anything, even something as simple as some new wheels I need to push my wheelchair around.

In a twist of irony, I applied for a job at ACC as a case manager for people like myself (I had heard the pay was amazing) and it came down to myself and another candidate. She was hired as despite having a Masters in health science majoring in rehabilitation and 20 years lived experience as someone with a spinal injury - who had been studying and working most of that time - she had a background in finance.

So it continues, the sleepless nights, wondering when the goodwill of the people looking after me will run out. I feel like a victim, which is senseless when it’s a system meant to support people, not victimise them. In America, I could have sued the surgeon who operated on me when he admitted he shouldn’t have been and his insurance would have paid out millions. Instead, I am stuck in a precarious position, having no job, no energy to study, and the will to keep fighting fast running out.

We shouldn’t be made to feel this way, guilty for our injuries, guilty for needing support. The money is there but we have to fight to access it, and all this fighting leaves little room for picking up the pieces and getting on with life. I want to become a Doctor, I want to help people, have a job, have a life, but it’s on hold… until someone answers the phone…. Until someone cares, until someone realises the system set up to support people like me is damaged, is corrupt and is motivated to make money, not help people. ACC has become a neoliberal corporation whose agenda is motivated by economic means, not by helping people.

This needs to change, it has to change or there will be more people like myself, stuck in a matrix where fighting is our normal, and achieving a life, a sustainable, purpose filled life is fast becoming a dream.

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