Kramer Hoeflich was 15-years-old when his life changed forever. An afternoon dive off a rock into the ocean in the Cook Islands left him paralysed. But his story is one of triumph. Now an advocate for disabled peoples’ rights, he has become a champion for change.
“I remember sitting up there, it was a beautiful morning, the sun was shining. Then I just stood up on the top of the rock and dove into the sea. It was something I’d done many times before.”
Kramer Hoeflich was born in Rarotonga to a Cook Island Māori mother and Italian father. In his teens he’d often go swimming with his mates at Black Rock, their favourite stretch of beach.
On the day of his accident nothing seemed unusual as he launched himself into the sea. He dived from a high point, about two stories up.
But Kramer didn’t slip peacefully into the water. He struck something under the waves, and everything stopped.
“I remember entering the water and then I'm not too sure if I hit the sea floor or rock, all I remember once I went into the water was hearing a, like a loud thump, like when you put your head into a bathtub and you go under and you hit the side, you hear that thumping noise. So I heard that and next everything was all white.”
Twelve years on, that moment is still very present in his mind.
“I couldn't see a thing when I woke up while I was still underwater. So all I could see was just a mixture of my blood in the sea. I slowly floated to the surface where half of my face stuck out and I could see my cousin and a few tourists first, my cousins screaming my name running towards me.”
Kramer came to Auckland for surgery shortly after his accident. He thought his spinal cord would be fixed and he’d be out of his wheelchair.
But he was told he’d never walk again. It’s another moment seared into his memory.
“I just, I just froze for a bit, and then, well… Mum and Grandma were crying and running out of the room. I just remember lying there, crying in bed.”
Kramer remained in Auckland, supported by his family, and went to Selwyn College where he ended up finishing his schooling.
From the first moment there he faced multiple challenges.
“School for me wasn’t really the best because you know I was a young kid trying to re-adjust in a new strange land. Making friends was hard, but even at school they saw the disability before the person, they kind of stayed away… I bonded with some of the staff, and I made, not a lot of friends, but some friends within school. Because at that time I was still trying to find the confidence in myself. I was still adjusting to life on the chair. “
Kramer did adapt, and after school he quickly found his calling as a disability information specialist and rights campaigner. His focus is on young people and the Pacific community.
He is full of praise for the medical care he’s received in New Zealand, but his experience means he is overtly aware of flaws in the system.
From his first moment he had to find his way through bureaucracy.
“I didn’t really know what was available for me out there. I didn’t really know where to seek the actual information. I just didn’t know how to access the stuff that I was entitled to, because no-one actually told me it was available. It wasn’t until you meet someone else who is disabled and they tell you.”
Kramer is very clear about what he wants people to understand, and above all he wants to see disabled people treated with dignity.
“When I left the spinal unit, the rehab centre, they told me I was going to be taken care of. These people would come in, handle my care, dress me, get me up and everything. So, they actually came in the week I got discharged and they just stood around not knowing what to do. So, I thought I was going to be stuck, you know, no support whatsoever.”
In the end Kramer’s mother stepped in to help him that day.
He says that while he has a real need for physical help, the world too often assumes he and other disabled people are unable to do other things.
“I would say the stigma around disability, I mean what we can and can’t do, that’s something I want to change. I’m currently working on changing that, through the actions we do every day. I definitely want to change the system, to make the system more flexible for disabled people. That’s one thing I want to change, to make it more accessible. When I say the system, that’s right down to housing, the environment, to getting access to stuff.”
A simple example is access to a car.
“Take ACC and the Ministry of Health. When you're on ACC, when you want to get a vehicle, it’s just a snap of the finger, they get it for you… they pay for everything. Full costs, they pay for you to learn how to do it. But since I'm on Ministry of Health, for me to get a vehicle, which one I have to drive my chair physically into, it's going to cost about 120 grand. So, the Ministry of Health, they're not going to fund the whole 120 grand. So I have to find different ways of actually finding funding towards it.”
Disabled people have the same rights as anyone else under the law, including the right to work. But Kramer says employers rarely open their eyes to the unique skills disabled people bring.
“They see the disability before the person, so they don’t actually know the creativity behind us. So, it’s only something they get to see first-hand when they actually get with us in the workplace. Because having a disability you’re always having to work outside the box to find new solutions to getting things done… so that is definitely something you do bring to the workplace.”
Now a confident 27-year-old, Kramer works for two organisations – Vaka Tautua and PHAB Pasifika, and he chairs the YES Disability Resource Centre’s Youth Engagement Group.
He’s already made his mark, working as part of the team which helped the government develop its three- year action plan to improve the lives of young disabled people.
Kramer has a bold vision for his career.
“I want to be in a position to change the system, and one way I can do that is to be Minister of Disability one day….The UN has always kind of been a thing for me as well…I want to help change the system here and then go global and help those around the world.”
He has his own dreams too.
“I would love to, you know, have my own house where it's fully accessible for me and you know, to be able to raise a family of my own. Yeah. That is definitely my dream. “
More information on Kramer Hoeflich and his work:
Find out more about disability rights here.
Kramer Hoeflich’s story is the first in a series of personal interviews to be released by the Human Rights Commission in the coming weeks. In these, New Zealanders will talk about their lives and the human rights issues they face. Their voices will be at the forefront. Please share these stories with others and join the conversation here.