He whakataukī

“Tūwhitia te hopo”: Feel the fear and do it anyway.

Hopo: fear, trepidation, a sinking feeling of dread

From Aroha: Māori wisdom for a contented life lived in harmony with our planet by Hinemoa Elder

Note: for reference, the Māori terms used in the rest of the article are listed at the bottom with approximate brief translations to the best of my understanding. ***

I’m a Pākehā immigrant to Aotearoa New Zealand, my family arriving when I was nine. Though details are blurry now, I remember the hospitality of the mana whenua as my marine ecologist father along with the rest of the family received a powhiri at his new workplace based in the small northern Auckland town of Leigh, complete – as is customary – with the sharing of kai. I am lucky to have a place to stand in this country by way of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, something I, like probably most of you reading this, learned very little about at school. The few times I have been on marae, I have felt really welcome, and participating in kapa haka at school there was always an effort to make sure I was fully taking part.

Still, for disabled people, focusing on blind people for the purposes of this piece, there are real barriers to exploring or being immersed in te ao Māori and te reo Māori.

Before delving into that, I want to note upfront that this whole kaupapa hits differently, and much harder, for tāngata whenua. By virtue of being Pākehā, it’s important that I recognise the intergenerational hurt and alienation from land and culture which results from colonialism. Page 4 of 28 I don’t have to choose between services which meet my disability or cultural needs, for instance. And I want to make sure that my well- intended interest in learning reo Māori doesn’t take a limited course enrolment place away from Māori themselves. But I wanted to write about this topic because while I see so much discussion and sharing of resources among many of my (mostly sighted) friends and social media circles, I think all of us need the space to talk about what we might notice as blind people too. This piece is in the spirit of sparking that conversation.

Where to start learning?

There are as many answers to that question as people. But if you have access to the Blind Low Vision NZ library, preferably on a device that lets you write down your search terms, you will discover a growing collection of books examining the history of te ao Māori and Te Tiriti o Waitangi, along with books about Māori spirituality, about learning the language, and books which are themselves in te reo Māori. I’m currently contemplating my way through the wisdom-filled collection of whakatauki by Hinemoa Elder referenced at the top of this editorial. And I’m very appreciative of access to audiobooks, because I can relax and temporarily forget that screen readers and reo Māori are yet to make friends.

The basic BLVNZ library search is found at https://blindlowvision.org.nz/our-services/accessible-library/. Typing “Māori” into the box, for instance, brings up 27 results for me. Underneath each book , you are presented with a number which you can feed to an Alexa if you want to read the book on there, or type it into the search box of the Easy Reader app. For the advanced search form that allows you to dive into categories, specify the book format and more, follow the link on the above page for “Classic and Braille search”. Page 5 of 28

If listening is your thing and you’re after something shorter than books, there are a lot of excellent podcasts out there which you can subscribe to through your podcast app of choice. Try The Aotearoa History Show from RNZ, or for learning some reo, I’m really appreciating Everyday Māori by Hēmi Kelly and Āpera Woodfine. A super informative show that goes much deeper into many varied kaupapa, for anyone who already has some familiarity with te ao Māori, is the Taringa podcast from Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.

Screen readers and te reo Māori

Let’s face it, however much we might want to immerse ourselves even in English texts with reo Māori throughout, the abominable pronunciation of our screen readers is, at least, distracting, and at worst, so off-putting that we stay away. There aren’t any silver bullets here, yet unfortunately, but there are things we can do to make the situation a little more tolerable. If you don’t yet know how to reach your screen reader’s pronunciation dictionary, look that up. This is the place where you can customise (to a point at least), how words are pronounced. Fiddle around with some spellings until whānau sounds more like faa-no and less like wa-now, and until you get the hard g out of tāngata (try something like taang attah…). Onehunga and Papatoetoe are other notorious clangers until treated to similar assistance.

If you are trying to read full sentences, as opposed to the odd word or two, using the free Windows-based NVDA (non-visual Desktop access) screen-reader with the eSpeak NG synthesiser does give you options of voices called “Māori” and “Hawaiian”, whose pronunciation is certainly a lot closer to what you’re after than the English. My preference out of the two is the Hawaiian one and if anyone gets stuck trying to configure them for easy switching, consult section 12.4 of the NVDA user guide or let me know and I’ll go through it with you. Just make sure you know how to return to the English voice before enabling either of them because those voices have absolutely not been programmed for pronouncing English! Page 6 of 28

Braille and te reo Māori

Luckily, the only new symbol to know for Braille readers who haven’t read any reo Māori in Braille before is dots 4-5-6 for the macron. A vowel with a macron in front of it is pronounced with the same sound but is longer in length. Meanwhile, the wh contraction is used for the corresponding sound (which is like an English f) and other than that the Braille is in grade 1. Note that a macron symbol in Unified English Braille, such as you’ll find if you’re using an iPhone set to the UEB table, is dot 4 and a dash, so 4, 3-6. With that knowledge, inputting reo Māori with Braille screen input using UEB suddenly becomes much easier. With the NVDA screen reader on windows, it’s also possible to customise how macrons are output on a Braille display using the Braille extender add-on.

Typing macrons on a computer keyboard

On Windows, by far the quickest way to type the vowels with macrons is to use the keyboard called “NZ Aotearoa”. In the world of Windows settings, keyboards get added under a specific language, so have a look for preferred languages, select “English (New Zealand)” and then add that keyboard under there. To type a macron, you’ll use the little key above the tab, typed directly before the corresponding vowel. Macrons aren’t optional particularly as meaning often shifts based on the presence of macrons alone. If you’re not able to type macron symbols, an alternative is to double the vowel, so Pākehā becomes Paakehaa for instance.

Staying on a marae

Accessing in-person activities in general is difficult for me due to a mix of the familiar transport barriers and my being chronically ill. But I fortunately had the privilege to stay on a marae this year, among a group of people from a shared kaupapa. Page 7 of 28

The manaakitanga shown was wonderful though I made myself a few mental notes about logistics. When greeting individually with hongi as part of the powhiri, I realised it was easier for me to let myself be swept along by the general direction of the group rather than to try to maintain sighted guide which was resulting in my being missed sometimes. Following the tikanga of taking shoes off before entering the wharenui and placing them among 50 odd other pairs of shoes meant I needed to know how to describe my shoes well to anyone who’d never seen them before. The same went for all my belongings. When it was time for sleep and the mattresses were placed pretty much filling the room, I made sure I knew who I was sleeping beside. If doing it again, I’d probably have tried to bags a spot beside a wall, in case I did need to independently manoeuvre out of the space. Out of respect for tikanga, I needed to pay attention when I was entering the wharenui to not inadvertently carry food inside and to check that I wouldn’t accidentally sit on a pillow on the floor (though these were promptly cleared away in the mornings).

During our wānanga, there was a moment where one of our group of manuhiri accidentally bumped one of the photos of tīpuna on display on the walls in the wharenui. The person apologised and the local hau kāinga was gracious about it. All the while, I hadn’t clocked until that point that we were literally surrounded by this very tangible visual reminder of the presence of ancestors watching over and guiding us.

In general, I always have some worry in the back of my head that I’ll do something that doesn’t follow tikanga without realising it and that no one will tell me. That, obviously, isn’t a purely non-visual issue, though whether it’s the presence of signage or people copying others, sometimes you really don’t know what you can’t see if someone doesn’t make a point of communicate it in another way.

Accessing the arts

While there traditionally hasn’t been as much audio description available to Māori and Pacific communities, that’s meaningfully shifting in recent years. Audio Described Aotearoa and Te Rōpū Waiora organised audio description at this year’s Te Matatini Kapa Haka festival. Some performances centred within te ao Māori and Pacific culture like The Haka Party Incident, Upu, Dawn Raids, Red White and Brass and a Siva Afi festival have also been described. Audio Described Aotearoa also received funding this year to train Māori and Pacific audio describers in collaboration with blind consultants. Nicola Owen spoke to Arts Access Aotearoa about this at the time [1].

“In a few years’ time,” she said, “we want to be in a place where online audio description extends to Māori and Pacific arts; where films like Whina and Muru come with audio description tracks written and recorded by Māori describers; and where Disney films like Moana, with the soundtrack recorded in te reo Māori, also have te reo Māori audio description.”

Joining in the waiata or kapa haka

I love the richness of singing waiata together, and often groups will learn them together so everyone who doesn’t know the waiata in question can follow along. In recent times, Auckland Arts Festival has ensured that some of its events centred on waiata have had the option to request Braille song sheets in advance. I attended and thoroughly enjoyed one such sing-along. Conversely, just as when singing in any other group, getting stuck without access to the kupu if everyone sighted does have access to the words doesn’t feel great, especially because it’s hard to glance at them on a phone at a moment’s notice given the aforementioned problems with screen reader pronunciation. This is just another of those: plan in advance if possible, and advocate for what you need situations, I think. Page 9 of 28

I was lucky that when I took part in kapa haka at school, I did have access to the kupu while learning, most of the time, and I did usually have assistance with learning the movements and actions so I could fully participate. Admittedly, I gave up on trying to coordinate the long poi pretty quickly, but still, I was shown them, and I had a go! *** Returning to the whakatauki I opened with, tūwhitia te hopo. For tangata Tiriti like me, it’s such a gift to be able to explore te ao Māori. Let’s try not let fear stand in the way of starting to learn, and to accessing the bounty of resources and experiences that we can, while being open about the challenges too.


  1. Audio Described Aotearoa to train Māori and Pacific audio describers. Arts Access Aotearoa. https://t.ly/exJlk
  2. Environment as marae locale. Kawharu 2010. https://t.ly/t2yvF

Māori language words used in the article

  • Te ao Māori: the Māori world.
  • Hau kāinga: home people, local people of a marae.
  • Hongi: a form of greeting involving touching noses frequently done as part of powhiri.
  • Kai: food.
  • Kapa haka: performance of Māori song and dance which is affirming of Māori culture and identity.
  • Kaupapa: (roughly) subject, values-based orientation.
  • Kupu: word(s).
  • Manaakitanga: hospitality, care.
  • Manuhiri: visitors. Page 10 of 28
  • Marae and wharenui: a Marae is a place where tangata whenua, (Māori) people of the land, have sovereignty. It is “the focal point where values of stewardship and management in relation to the environment and to people are grounded” [2]. The site often includes a courtyard, wharenui or meeting house and other buildings, as well as an ancestral burial ground or urupā.
  • Pākehā: (loosely) New Zealand European or white people.
  • Poi: “a light ball on a string of varying length which is swung or twirled rhythmically to sung accompaniment” (Te Aka Māori dictionary definition).
  • Powhiri: a customary Māori welcome for visitors given by the local tangata whenua or hosting people of the land.
  • Tangata Tiriti: people living in Aotearoa by virtue of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (in contrast to tangata whenua).
  • Tangata whenua: literally people of the land, here referring to Māori.
  • Te Tiriti o Waitangi: the Māori text of the Treaty of Waitangi, the country’s founding treaty signed by Māori chiefs and the Crown in 1840.
  • Te reo Māori: the Māori language.
  • Tikanga: Māori customs and values.
  • Tīpuna (or tūpuna): ancestors.
  • Waiata: song, singing.
  • Wānanga: gathering for discussion and sharing knowledge.
  • Whakaaro: thinking, ideas.
  • Whakatauki: a proverb (where the author isn’t known).
  • Whānau: loosely meaning family/extended family.