Being Me: Barney Looks Back

Barney lost his hands and legs from meningitis as a baby. At 25, he looks back on the life lessons he’s learned from studying law, playing Wheelchair Rugby for New Zealand, and a visit to Samoa.

Barney Koneferenisi’s parents always dreamed he might be an All Black, but when he contracted meningitis at four months old this severely impacted his life. He had his right hand amputated and parts of his left hand, then after many complications throughout his early years when he was 10, the doctors had to amputate his left leg and later also his right.

But this has not affected Barney’s positive outlook on life. He wants to change other people’s perception of what those with a disability can do.

Unable to help his parents physically in the way that is expected within Samoan culture, Barney is working towards being able to fund their retirement and care for them by getting an education.

Barney writing on a table.
Barneys' life changed forever after contracting meningitis.

At AUT he completed a double-degree in law and business with a double-major in economics and marketing, and is on track to being able to provide for his mother and father. He is breaking the stereotype of what people with disabilities can do within his culture, by working to change long-held perceptions.

“In the Samoan culture, disability is very looked down upon because if your child has a disability they immediately think they’re useless as they can’t do anything around the house.”

He is grateful for his parents giving him the best life they could, despite being immigrants to New Zealand and having little to no support due to Barney’s disabilities.

“My parents pretty much stuck up for me when I was a kid, they had the choice to put me up for adoption but they chose not to.”

Barney relaxing on a reclining chair by the pool.
Barney is passionate about supporting kids with disabilities from the Pacific Islands

In 2013 Barney travelled to Samoa to see what life was like there for people living with disabilities. He struggled with the attention his wheelchair attracted, but he set out to shift people’s mindsets.

 During his time in Samoa he visited ‘Loto Taumafai’ a school for children with disabilities: 

“Loto Taumafai opened in 1981, before it opened most disabled kids didn’t go to school.”

Barney believes if his family had stayed in Samoa he would have attended the school, which currently has a register of 140 children but no specialised facilities or programs to support them. The teachers make do with what they have, a standard school building and resources stretched across the children.

On his travels Barney met a five-year-old girl named Sally who has cerebral palsy, he visited her and her family at their home to see what obstacles she faces. Her biggest challenge was having a wheelchair which did not fit her or the terrain, and made it difficult for her to get around in comfort. The area she lived in was also not tailored to accommodate people with disabilities.  

Barney visits a school in Samoa.
Barney visits a school in Samoa.

“It was wiped out by a cyclone and after the rebuild there was no money left to install ramps or anything to help people with disabilities.”

The family lost most of their possessions in the cyclone and they do the best they can with what they have now. Sally’s younger brother also lives with a disability, he cannot talk because he has a malformed mouth and no-one knows what to do to help him.

Barney’s trip made him realise how lucky he was to be living in New Zealand with access to support and services.

“My parents always told me to be grateful for what you do have because other people don’t have it, look at the things you have because you don’t know somewhere across the world people are trying to get that. And when we went to Samoa that’s exactly what we experienced.”

Travelling around Samoa shifted his view of the country, “meeting the people who were looking after others with disabilities.. has changed my whole outlook on Samoan culture.”

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