After life-changing injury jumping into Wellington harbour, banker encourages businesses to back disabled workers

Three years ago, Jane Yuile jumped into Wellington's harbour. Just hours later she was a quadriplegic.

Jane Yuile with her children Peter and Libby LittleYuile and husband Ian Little. Source: Supplied

But she's not letting her impairment hold her back — she's adapted her work to suit her needs, still attends cocktail parties and is even preparing to take her first commercial flight since her injury tomorrow.

CCS Disability Action national disability leadership co-ordinator Debbie Ward says she's pleased Yuile was able to be supported to stay in her job, but for many Kiwis with disabilities it's not the same.

Ward wants businesses to hear Yuile's story to see the value impaired workers can still offer.

Yuile has worked for ANZ bank in Adelaide for 10 years.

She is a senior adviser responsible for relationships with the CEOs and boards of ANZ's institutional customers in South Australia, as well as a director on several company boards.

However, at the end of October in 2017 she lost feeling in most of her body.

"I was in Wellington down near Te Papa where there's a jumping platform where people jump into the water," she recalled to 1 NEWS.

"My husband and I were in Wellington for his niece's wedding and the day after we had lunch with some friends and went there to have an ice cream.

"Everybody was jumping in and it looked like a lot of fun and it was a gorgeous day and I've always liked jetty jumping.

"There was a young boy and he would walk to the end of the platform, stand there, get scared and then walk back and then get in the line again, then get to the end and he did this, I don't know, three or four times."

Yuile said she wanted to give the little boy some confidence that "if somebody as old as me" jumps in, he might take the plunge too.

That's when everything went wrong.

"When I landed I just felt this awful pain across the back of my shoulders and I knew something was pretty bad."

Yuile was able to swim to the edge, climb up a ladder and walk to her husband and friends.

When she went to get dressed, though, that's when she noticed the top of her thumb was numb.

"I was really insistent that we had to go to the hospital, potentially it may have seemed like a bit of an over-reaction but I was absolutely adamant."

Yuile remembers getting in the car and calling the hospital, who advised she get in an ambulance. As they were already driving they didn't end up doing so.

She remembers getting out of the car at hospital, but nothing beyond that point.

"I just knew it was bad but I didn't think I'd effectively broken my neck, I had no idea of that," Yuile said.

She had a surgery which ran into complications, with swelling causing her heart to stop twice. 

Her second life-saving operation was a laminectomy, which is quite a common operation where the surgeon removes part or all of the vertebral bone to ease pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots.

Jane Yuile with her son Peter LittleYuile. Source: Supplied

But it was from the laminectomy - just hours after jumping into the water - that Yuile came out a quadriplegic.

She said it was never explained how she was able to walk out after the initial impact.

Following the accident, Yuile spent almost three weeks in ICU in Wellington, before being flown back to Adelaide where she remained in ICU for four months. She was then in the spinal clinic for two months, then rehab for a year-and-a-half before going home.

"I think a lot of things have changed, but a lot of things are the same as well," she said.

"I still do the same work, which is what has been so amazing because it makes me feel like I'm me when I'm working. You don't think about that you're handicapped so that has been amazing."

Yuile said she uses voice and face recognition technology to carry out her job, which she said is "a game changer" and lets her be independent.

I have been in awe of the support that I've been given because it would have been so easy just to have cut the ties at a year or whatever. - Jane Yuile

"The biggest thing was patience, the fact that ANZ was so patient with my getting back to work. I've been so incredibly accommodated," she said, adding that a conference last week was moved to her city so she could attend in person.

"So incredible and thoughtful. It makes such a difference. I have been in awe of the support that I've been given because it would have been so easy just to have cut the ties at a year or whatever."

Now, CCS Disability Action's Ward wants other businesses to take note to support both workers impacted by injury who they know have skills, as well as give opportunities to those with existing conditions.

She told 1 NEWS there was still an unconscious bias with businesses in New Zealand not employing people with existing disabilities.

"There are inconsistencies in our nation with our systems of support for disabled people in general. It doesn't matter if it's from birth, injury or through illness or a traumatic experience, these inconsistencies create an unequal playing field."

Ward said 25 per cent of New Zealand's population has some kind of impairment, and that's it's "a shame" they are among high rates of unemployment, especially disabled women.

"There's a lot of unconscious bias by employers and untrue myths about mobility impairments, that they'll be sick all the time, not as productive as someone not disabled," Ward said.

"We know they don't even get shortlisted. Discrimination happens because of an unconscious bias.

"But research from employers who do employ disabled people shows they really see the benefits - it's just another group of diversity."

Ward also said many disabled Kiwis have university qualifications and a lot to offer, but that getting knocked back on jobs can impact their mental health.

She encouraged employers to talk to people with a disability, reach out to organisations such as CCS Disability Action, which supports more than 5000 disabled New Zealanders and their whānau.

Ward said the aim was to "breakdown the myths" and support those with an impairment into employment.

Meanwhile, her advice to anyone struggling to get into work was "just don't give up, just keep trying".

Yuile mirrored those words.

"I think you've really got to persevere and have confidence. You've really got to believe in yourself, that you're still there, that your brain is there and that you can do it," she said.

"All the time I'm pushing myself out of my comfort zone to do things, whether it be public speaking or going to a cocktail party and having to deal with a big crowd. Tomorrow I'm doing a test of getting onto a plane thanks to Qantas and the airport, so that'll be interesting. It will be amazing if I can fly, it'll be so much fun."

Yuile said she'd love to fly to Sydney to see her children because her family had been a huge support throughout her journey.

"My husband has been amazing, I mean truthfully. He has stood by me, he was debating on whether he'd retire but he chose to retire and he's just been there for me." 

Her husband, Ian Little, was a CEO at an oil and gas mapping company. They've been married for almost 39 years.

"My family's been great. Of course it's been awful for them. As much as it's changed my life, it's changed their lives as well.

"I think family and friends made such a difference to my recovery."

Yuile said the Covid-19 pandemic had taught everybody similar lessons to what she's faced over the past three years, though.

"I think Covid has really taught everybody that you have to be able to adapt and I think it's been great workplaces have changed and how people really have adapted to change, like me, that's the same. You've just got to adapt to your new you."