top of page

Pacific disability advocate does not let ‘disabled’ labels dictate her life’s journey

William Sangster

Dancer's message for disabled community: ‘The world is waiting for your greatness’

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

An award-winning disability advocate for Pasifika says she has no time for labels that seemingly define her.

Lavinia Lovo is a proud voice for young Pacific people living with a disability and says labels including “disabled”, “handicapped” and “conditions” do not sit well with her.

“I never let that kind of vocabulary define who I am. To me, I am Samoan-Tongan first before any impairment I have.”

The 28-year-old lives with Spina Bifida - a birth defect that happens when the spine and spinal cord do not form properly. Because of this, she uses a wheelchair.

She is also the recipient of the Pacific Toa Award, which recognises the contribution of a Pasifika artist - with the lived experience of disability - to Pacific arts nationally or internationally.

Lovo received the gong at a recent awards ceremony for her work with a performing arts group for Pasifika youth with disabilities she started dubbed: Nesian.

The group was formed for Pacific disabled youth who were being left out of their youth groups in church, and events such as the annual Auckland Secondary Schools PolyFest.

‘It was normal to help others’

The talented young woman - who performs dance in her wheelchair - is also the co-ordinator for I.Lead, which is described as a movement of young people with disabilities whose aim is to reach out and help young people just like them.

“Nesian allows the young people to explore their culture identities through a performing arts lens - spoken word, film, dance etcetera,” she said.

“Having a disability myself allows our participants to feel like they finally have facilitators that can relate.”

Lovo is an experienced youth worker who sits on a number of Pasifika panels. Supporting young people on a daily basis, she says it feels normal to help others.

“I never really acknowledged it as actual work because I just thought it was normal to help others the same way. I was even shocked people were watching my journey.”

Lovo says she was anxious but grateful when she received the award because she saw it as living proof of what happens when the right support is given to a young person’s dream.

She thanked her aiga and those people who raised her to not accept limitations associated with having a disability.

Lovo gives credit to her mentor, Fonoti Pati Umaga, for what she called his significant career-impacting influence.

Umaga, 65, is a tetraplegic wheelchair user and works as a senior advisor for the Survivor Voice and Experience, for the Crown Response Agency.

He is also the inaugural winner of the Creative NZ Toa award.

Making sure future generations are looked after

Umaga was ecstatic over Lovo’s win and said this would elevate her profile and progress her position in the dance community.

“The win is another step for our disabled artists to establish themselves in the arts sector and more opportunities, especially for our emerging artists.

“Artists like Lavinia pave the way for other disabled artists through their leadership, mentoring and peer support.”

Another previous award winner, Lusi Faiva, 55, is a founding member of Touch Compass - the country’s leading professional arts organisation whose work is disability-led.

Faiva, who has cerebral palsy, is looking forward to seeing the impact Lovo is going to make, going forward.

“Lavinia is the most driven young woman - that’s why I am so impressed by her ability to make a difference for the Pacific disabled community in Auckland and around Aotearoa.

“We need to provide resources for the future generations of disabled people who can have the same opportunities as the able-bodied people.”

Lovo says this achievement has allowed her to create stronger networks to go forward as a dance facilitator with Nesian.

Her advice to the disabled community is simple: “Go be great and regret nothing. There is no other you.

“So there’s no need to go into places and apologise for simply being yourself; the world is waiting for your greatness.”

Hero image: Lavinia Lovo is a proud advocate for Pasifika young people with disabilities. Photo / Supplied

bottom of page