Information about disabled people

One in five New Zealanders have an impairment. In 2001, this amounted to a total of 743,800 people. Disabled New Zealanders are a diverse group, representing all sectors of society and a wide range of impairment types.

The experience of disability occurs when people with impairments are excluded from places and activities most New Zealanders take for granted. Many disabled people are seriously disadvantaged by exclusion, and are unable to participate in society on an equal basis with others.

Disability touches most people’s lives, either personally or through their family and friends.

Disability Survey 2001

The most comprehensive source of information about disabled people in New Zealand is from the Statistics New Zealand Disability Survey, which was last conducted after the 2001 Census.

A total of 743,800 New Zealanders reported some level of impairment. This included an estimated 626,500 adults (over 15 years old), 90,000 children living in households, and 27,300 people living in residential facilities.

An estimated 432,100 people relied on some form of disability support, including:

  • about 110,700 people needing daily help with tasks such as preparing meals, shopping, housework, bathing or dressing (including 22,600 people in residential facilities)
  • about 321,400 people needing an assistive device or help with heavier or more difficult household tasks (including 4,400 people in residential facilities).

Disability is influenced by the nature of a person’s impairment(s). These can be intellectual, psychiatric, physical, neurological or sensory, and be temporary, intermittent or ongoing. Gender, age, ethnicity and culture can also have a profound and sometimes compounding effect on an individual’s experience of disability.

Likelihood of impairment increases with age

Older people are substantially more likely than younger people to experience disability. In 2001, 11 percent of children aged 0 to 14 years, 13 percent of adults aged 15 to 44 years and 25 percent of adults aged between 45 and 64 years reported an impairment. This compares with 54 percent of people aged 65 years or over (including 87 percent of people aged 85 and over). However, most disabled people are part of the working age population.

Immobility caused by illness is the most common adult impairment

Physical impairments are the most common impairment type, with two-thirds of disabled people reporting a physical impairment, such as loss of mobility and agility. These impairments most often result from illness, with accidents being the second most common cause.

The majority of disabled people (57 percent of disabled adults in 2001) have more than one type of impairment, often with varied causes. The prevalence of multiple impairments increases with age.

Cycle of deprivation

Disbility cuts across all aspects of community life and all sectors of society, and affects every income bracket, age group, ethnic group and region. Disabled people experience significant disadvantage in areas of life compared with non-disabled people. Statistics indicate many disabled people are caught in a cycle of deprivation.

The Disability Survey 2001 showed that disabled people have:

  • lower levels of educational attainment
  • lower incomes
  • a poorer general health status
  • less choice in housing
  • higher unemployment rates
  • poor access to support services and working arrangements that might allow them to move from a marginalised position in society.

Disabled people are over-represented in lower-paid occupations, and in 2001 almost half of working age disabled adults had incomes less than $15,000 per year. It is not surprising that disabled adults are also less likely to own or partly own their home.

Research shows poorer general health status amongst disabled people, and poor access to support services and other arrangements that might allow them to move from a marginalised position in society.

Complaints to the Human Rights Commission about discrimination on the grounds of disability have increased in the last few years, to nearly one quarter of the total. This may indicate increased awareness and advocacy rather than increased discrimination. The number of complaints of discrimination on the grounds of disability is second only to the number on grounds of race.


The 2001 Disability Survey found significant differences in education outcomes for disabled people compared to people without impairments

  • 39% of disabled adults reported having no educational qualifications, compared with 24% of non-disabled adults.
  • 34% of disabled adults had their highest qualification as from school, compared with 42% of non-disabled adults.
  • 27% of disabled adults had a post-school qualification, compared with 34% of non-disabled adults.


The 2001 Disability Survey observed significant differences in labour market outcomes for disabled people compared to people without impairments. The difference is particularly pronounced for full-time employment outcomes. For working age people (those aged between 15 and 65):

  • 58% of disabled people were in some kind of employment compared with 77% of non-disabled people.
  • 29% of disabled people were in full-time employment compared with 65% of non-disabled people.
  • 30% of disabled people received a benefit compared with 11% of non-disabled people.

Further analysis of the 2001 Disability Survey by the Ministry of Social Development confirms that disability has the effect of greatly diminishing the likelihood of full-time employment. The effect is much smaller when the outcome examined is any degree of employment (for example, part-time or intermittant).

A Human Rights Commission equal employment opportunities (EEO) report, Framework for the Future: Equal Employment Opportunities released in June 2004, noted that disabled people are over-represented in lower-paid occupations and the large majority of disabled people are employed in organisations not subject to mandated EEO practices.

Data collection

The number and characteristics of disabled people in New Zealand have been measured in the Statistics New Zealand Disability Surveys of 1996/97 and 2001.

A functional concept of disability was used in these Surveys, based on the World Health Organization definition: “…any restriction or lack (resulting from impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.”

Using this concept, for the purpose of the census survey ‘disability’ was defined as any “self-perceived limitation in activity resulting from a long-term condition or health problem.” People were not considered as having a disability if they possess and use an assistive device (such as glasses or a hearing aid) which completely eliminates the impairment. In addition, the limiting condition must have lasted, or be expected to last, for at least six months.

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