Stories of Success
Restoring equality and completeness to people’s lives
A Christchurch man and the staff of his small advocacy organisation are using their own lived experience of hardship, disability, stigma and discrimination to help others put their lives back together.
Gary Watts was born in 1945 into a hard-working dairying family in rural Taranaki. His childhood and early school years were happy and he enjoyed academic, sporting and social success. But when he started high school everything dramatically changed. He completely lost interest in his many interests and wagged school frequently.
He had come to experience clinical depression, though this was not properly diagnosed until many years later. There seemed no explanation for how he had changed so Gary felt intense shame and resentment. This was the beginning of the stigma he would experience all his life. At that time he could not bring himself to talk with anyone about what was happening. He left school at 15 to complete an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic.
Gary was eventually prescribed anti-depressants at 18 which helped. A back operation in his thirties meant he could not take his medication. The resulting acute psychosis saw him admitted to Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital for almost a year.
He doesn’t like to talk much about stigma because it remains a painful subject. At this time he felt it was quite severe.
“Coming back to the town you live in is hard because you know people are talking. All it takes is for one person to start and word quickly gets around. It’s quite a hurtful and emotional issue.
“There have been lots of similar incidents and one thing you don’t realise at first is the impact it has on your children. That’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with.”
Gary experienced stigma in his workplace. Once, upon returning to work after being off sick, he was put into a much lower position than he’d held before he left.
“I knew it was because of my mental health and that was really soul destroying,” he says. “But it also meant an immediate reduction in pay which has huge implications when you have a family to support.”
Alongside his mental health challenges, Gary has known much personal hardship. He went through a painful divorce after 20 years with his first wife, then lost his second wife to cancer. His son died in the New Zealand Army and another son suffers from severe type 1 diabetes. Both his father and his brother died in their sleep and his mental health issues have strained relationships with his siblings. He has profound sight and hearing problems and major arthritis in his knee.
In 2006 he was diagnosed with cancer. This, along with several major surgeries to alleviate symptoms, has had a significant impact on his quality of life.
Nevertheless he has always tried hard to be a happy and contributing member of society. He has worked in civil defence, as a manufacturing engineer, a union representative and as an advisor to the Ministry of Social Development. He has been a volunteer fireman, plays the trumpet and is president of the Christchurch Savage Club.
Gary says the difficulties in his life have helped make him emotionally strong and clear-headed in times of crisis. He is now using his strengths, skills, experiences and a wide range of contacts to help others who face stigma, discrimination and hardship every day.
In 2001, he founded Sigjaws – an independent advocacy organisation for disabled people and he currently works there as project manager.
The name represents how pieces of our lives can sometimes become shattered, misshapen or lost, creating real obstacles. Sometimes the pieces have become impossible to repair or replace, but Sigjaws’ objective is to remove some of those obstacles so people can carry on.
Its services include helping to find suitable housing, resolving health challenges and gaining employment. Gary’s own challenges mean he can help peoples navigate their way through the health system or through services like WINZ and ACC, which can be quite overwhelming to deal with.
He points out disabilities come in all shapes and sizes.
“Discrimination comes in many varieties and sometimes it’s unintended. People with mobility issues, for example, have their personal movements restricted because of the operating hours of their care agency. Some people can’t get out of their cars easily so they face real issues just getting petrol.”
Gary’s staff are trained volunteers and all have experience of some form of disability. He says the lived experience they have is a tremendous advantage.
“The difficulties you’ve faced mean you have this overview and you can often see how to help a person straight away, even if they’re feeling overwhelmed.”
The service takes a deliberately holistic approach. When staff interview people, they don’t just talk about the immediate problem. They try to find out who the person is, what their interests are and what else is going on in their lives.
“It’s not easy, and it takes time to build up trust,” says Gary, “ but when you know the whole person you can better assist them into the right job, for example, or just find out what’s really going on. We go through a whole process with people and that may be why we have a lot of success
Under Gary’s leadership, and with his engineering experience, Sigjaws has not been afraid to embrace technology. The service has teamed up with the University of Canterbury’s Engineering Department to develop a suite of technical solutions.
These include electronic alerts for people turning up at emergency services that let hospital workers know they are outside, what assistance they may need and what medical staff should be on hand. A similar device has been designed to help disabled clients get through the security procedures at public entrances to WINZ offices by bringing up their information in advance.
Perhaps the most ambitious is a robotic system being piloted that will allow disabled people to fill up their cars at petrol stations and pay for their fuel without having to leave the driver’s seat.
“It’s about finding innovative ways of dealing with the sorts of problems we see coming up over and over again for people. If we don’t; they’re just going to keep happening,” Gary says.
“Mental health issues, or any form of disability, are no different from other illnesses and people who have them are the same as anybody else. They like to have the same equality and opportunities, and why shouldn’t they?”
Sigjaws receives very positive feedback from those using its services, most of whom appreciate that they are being supported by people who can truly empathise.
Gary and his staff are proof that, even with the most meagre of resources, people’s broken and disarrayed pieces can be reassembled and greater equality and completeness can be returned to their lives.
Endnote: Sadly, in October 2015, Sigjaws Trust board members agreed to resign and dissolve the organisation due to workload issues. Gary feels the fact the organisation has been under-resourced for so long is another example of the marginalisation the disabled face. Gary is nothing if not passionate and committed and will continue to carry on the work of Sigjaws independently. Concentrating especially on the technical projects he feels he may now also have some time free to achieve other important things.
 Sigjaws became Sigjaws Charitable Trust in 2009.