Access by Various artists


A short disability history of Aotearoa New Zealand

by Hilary Stace

In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British Crown and the indigenous Māori population of Aotearoa New Zealand. Its principles promised partnership, participation and protection. However, colonialism was largely negative for Māori and two centuries later they are disproportionately affected by socio-economic deprivation and disability.

Nineteenth-century New Zealand was settled mainly by people from Britain and Europe who were prepared to endure a long and risky sea trip for a better life. But disability was unwelcome and immigration acts banned ‘cripples, idiots, lunatics, infirm, blind, deaf and dumb’. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century large ‘asylums’ mixed several categories of ‘undesirables’. Physically disabled people were more likely to be housed in the ‘chronics wards’ of regular hospitals.

As the 19th century progressed some groups such as those with vision and hearing impairments, were seen as ‘habilitable’, meaning they had potential as worker citizens. Hence, the establishment of the residential schools which inadvertently provided the sites for deaf and blind activism.

The new 20th century coincided with an increasing interest in eugenics and Social Darwinism. These ideas were taken up by both liberals and conservatives. The 1903 publication The fertility of the unfit preached sterilisation for people with mental, moral and physical defects. Negative eugenists sought to limit fertility while positive eugenists supported interventionist policies to increase population ‘fitness’. In this context, Plunket was founded in 1907 to train mothers to grow healthy little citizens and soldiers for the (British) empire.

For the ‘unfit’, girls’ and boys’ homes, farm and residential schools and other institutions were developed to keep the sexes apart and prevent reproduction. The 1911 Mental Defectives Act classified groups of ‘other’ into idiots, imbeciles and feeble-minded and the 1914 Education Act made it obligatory for parents, teachers and police to report ‘mentally defective’ children to the Department of Education so they could be subject to surveillance and sent to the appropriate facility. In1925 a Committee of Inquiry into Mental Defectives and Sexual Offenders overtly linked intellectual impairment with moral degeneracy and potential sexual offending.

In contrast injuries sustained in First World War battles led to a new concept of ‘rehabilitation’, of fixing broken bits and making people ‘worthy’ again. In the 1930s surgeons founded the Crippled Children’s Society to deal with physical impairments such as those caused by polio. The first Labour Government’s 1938 Social Security Act founded the welfare state with some disability support and pensions.

But considerable parental advocacy was required for children with learning disabilities whose parents wanted more for them than institutionalisation. The Intellectually Handicapped Children’s Parents Association (now IHC) was founded in 1949. Seven decades later parental advocacy is still required for access to many services and educational support.

In the early 1970s the Accident Compensation Act brought in ‘no fault’ disability support for those injured by accident. It was backed by MPs who had seen war injuries. The 1975 Disabled Persons Community Welfare Act aimed to provide community support for those who impairment was not caused by accident.

From the early 1970s New Zealand disability activists joined the growing international disability rights movement. Significant outcomes included:

  • The 1981 Year of Disabled People, promoted by a Telethon, led to the formation of the Disabled Persons Assembly controlled by disabled people;
  • The right for all disabled children to attend their local school in the 1989 Education Act;
  • The inclusion of disability in the 1993 Human Rights Act;
  • A social model based, 2001 Disability Strategy. It was a result of partnership between Government and disability activists;
  • Vital input into the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by disabled New Zealanders and allies. A New Zealand self-advocate for those with learning disabilities now sits on the monitoring committee;
  • Closure of our last institution in 2006;
  • The end of sheltered workshops, and new employment rights for disabled workers
  • NZ Sign Language becoming an official language along with English and Te Reo Māori, and
  • Winning the international FD Roosevelt Disability award in 2007 for disability leadership.

More recently the Disability Strategy has been revised with an Action Plan and a ‘system transformation’ of disability support and services is about to be piloted based on the principle of ‘Enabling Good Lives’.

Our 2013 census revealed 24% identified as disabled. With the addition of family members and carers that makes a large disability constituency. Our official disability policy is underpinned by the social model but operational policy is based on targeting and rationing. We also have two different systems depending on whether the impairment is a result of accident or caused by other means. These tensions ensure ongoing inequity and the need for continued activism. 

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