History of disability in New Zealand

Attitudes to disability in this country have changed radically over the past 100 years. For the most part, these shifts reflect changing attitudes overseas, in a similar way to other social policy changes.

For most of the 20th century, disability was thought to be a problem inherent in individuals. This is commonly known as the ’medical model’, where disability was seen as being something ‘wrong’ with a person, which could be ’cured’ or at least contained.

Solutions to the ‘problem’ of disability took the form of government and wider society helping to fix or accommodate the problems of those afflicted individuals. This was often by segregating people with the problem and providing a service (such as an institution) to meet their ‘special’ needs. As a result, the ‘human’ needs of many individuals were unmet.

Themes of change

The following historical overview and timeline is based on two sources: a 1996 article by Margaret Tennant in the New Zealand Journal of Disability Studies, and a 1997 National Health Committee Report.

  • Increased survival: In the past many people died at an early age. Changing medical knowledge and technology now enables many people with ill health or physical impairments to live longer. This is one reason why there are more disabled people today than there was in early New Zealand.
  • Medicalisation of disabled people: With the increase in medical treatments possible, especially after World War II, people’s impairments were seen as treatable in the same way that ill health was treated. This approach focused attention on the impairment of disabled people rather than their wellbeing. As a result, the individual, ordinary life needs of people were often not taken into account.
  • Trends of best practice: Trends in treatments change over time. Treatments for ill health once in favour may now be considered backward. Similarly, with services for disabled people. For example, segregation of people with intellectual disabilities in institutions was once the norm - this practice is now disregarded, with the emphasis instead on supporting people to live in their communities.
  • Demographic changes: New Zealand’s population mix has changed significantly since 1840. Throughout the 19th century, young male adults made up most of our population. Today our gender balance is even and we have an ageing population.
  • Perceptions of stigma: Coming out of the 19th century, there was a negative stigma attached to people with impairments. They were thought to be weaker and less valuable members of society. A moral distinction had emerged between people who deserved support - those impaired by accident or illness - and people born with an impairment. Attitudes changed with the impact of disease epidemics (such as tuberculosis and polio) and injuries from World War I. Suddenly, there were people with an impairment who were otherwise young, fit and healthy. Their impairment had not been caused by a physical or moral weakness inherent in a person’s genetic makeup.
  • Support organisations: As organisations focused on specific impairments and support for families grew, so awareness of disabled people and the number of services available increased – such as, the Association of the Friends of the Blind in 1889, the forerunner of the Royal NZ Foundation of the Blind in 1890, CCS in 1935 and IHC in 1949.

1840 onwards

  • Government policies aimed at containing the number of disabled people living in New Zealand and keeping financial aid to a minimum.
  • Legislation discouraged disabled people from settling in New Zealand. The Imbecile Passengers’ Act 1882, for example, required a bond from the person responsible for a ship that discharged any person ‘lunatic, idiotic, deaf, dumb, blind or infirm’ who might become a charge on public or charitable institutions.
  • The Immigration Restriction Act 1899 included in its list of prohibited immigrants any idiot or insane person, as well as those suffering from contagious diseases.
  • Support for disabled people was expected to be met by their families. Any financial support was usually small and temporary, and was given by charitable organisations, not the taxpayer.
  • Institutions offering support for orphans, unmarried mothers and destitute older people began to be set up from the 1860s. Some disabled people ended up in these places as well.
  • From 1854, institutions were established for people with experience of mental illness. The Lunatics Ordinance 1846 provided for the safe custody and prevention of offences by persons dangerously insane, and for the care and maintenance of persons of unsound mind. These people were initially housed in jails and later in designated institutions.
  • The eugenics movement became popular in the 19th century. Eugenics applied the ideas of biological natural selection to people (also known as ‘racial fitness’). It advocated preserving good genetic stock by weeding out weak traits such as ill health or mental deficiencies. People with less desirable traits were to be prevented from having children – one way was for these people to be removed from society by placing them in purpose built institutions. Towards the end of the 19th century, people with intellectual disabilities began to be admitted to institutions previously reserved for people with mental illness. Men and women were strictly kept apart so they could not have children.
  • The first school for deaf children in New Zealand opened in 1880 (now the Van Asch Deaf Education Centre in Christchurch).

1900 to 1970

  • Social beliefs in racial fitness increased, becoming reflected in the government’s social policy on disabled people. This was connected to concerns at the trend of decreasing family size (until the 1930s), and the failure of a large number of conscripted men to meet the minimum health standard for the armed forces in World War I (57 per cent were rejected as unfit for service). Incidents like this fuelled a growing belief that the new country’s pioneering spirit had become weak and infected by bad genetics and moral failings.
  • Until 1916, the New Zealand Census identified people who were deaf and dumb, blind, lunatics, idiots, epileptics, paralysed, crippled and/or deformed.
  • Mechanisms were put in place to identify defective children. Institutional care, especially for mentally deficient people, was emphasised.
  • The Mental Defectives Act 1911 differentiated between persons of unsound mind, persons mentally infirm, idiots, imbeciles, the feeble minded and epileptics.
  • The Committee of Inquiry into Mental Defectives and Sexual Offenders of 1924-1925 expressed concern at ‘feeble-minded’ children. Action was needed to prevent ‘the multiplication of these degenerates’ and infection of ‘an inferior strain’ in the New Zealand population. The goal was to ‘increase the elements of the mental, moral, and physical strength of the nation’.
  • Such activities led to an emphasis on classifying and screening children. Children with ‘special needs’ were segregated to institutions and services outside the mainstream education and health services.
  • Some positive actions came out of this period - for example, the Plunket organisation, which provided care and support for the health of children and mothers.
  • Growing medical knowledge and technical advances of the time increased the emphasis on medical treatment, rather than social inclusion, of disabled people.
  • In 1924, legislation was passed allowing a pension for blind people. This legislation was well ahead of the social security reforms of the late 1930s, which introduced the invalids benefit for those permanently unable to work and the sickness benefit for those temporarily experiencing ill health.
  • In 1929, Templeton Farm in Christchurch was opened for ‘high-grade imbeciles and low-grade feeble-minded cases without psychotic complications’, under the administration of the mental health system.
  • The general population became increasingly aware of mental illness and physical impairments as experienced by solders returning home after the world wars. There was a need for better services, including psychiatric treatment, physiotherapy and plastic surgery. The rehabilitation of the mentally and physically impaired into society was emphasised.
  • Medical rehabilitation for ex-servicemen began after World War I and developed further through the Disabled Servicemen’s League, established after World War II. Services were available to civilians from 1954.
  • Sheltered employment opportunities for disabled people began with the Disabled Persons Employment Promotion Act 1960. Operators of sheltered workshops were exempted from applying the same employment conditions required elsewhere. This created a distinction between sheltered employment and employment on the open labour market.
  • The orientation towards large institutions for disabled people began to be challenged during the 1950s and 1960s. IHC in particular, set up day care centres, occupational groups and residential homes. At the same time it pursued a more rights-based approach in seeking appropriate educational facilities for their children.

1970 to 2000

  • From the 1970s, the government’s approach to services for disabled people became more community and rights based. Following the 1972 Royal Commission into Psychopaedic Hospitals, government funds were increasingly channelled into building small residential facilities rather than large institutions.
  • A principle of entitlement was established through the Accident Compensation Act 1972. People whose impairment was caused by injury through accident were now able to receive assistance on an individual entitlement basis.
  • The need for disabled people to have access to a wide range of community-based support was increasingly being recognised. The Disabled Persons Community Welfare Act 1975 gave disabled people, who were not ACC claimants, access to services to help them stay in the community.
  • There was also increasing recognition of the need for disabled people to have opportunities for mainstream employment. The Industrial Relations Act 1973 established the under-rate workers’ permit. This enabled a person with an impairment to work in the open labour market and receive a wage that matched their productivity.
  • Activities promoting the International Year of the Disabled in 1981, and the associated Telethon, provided a focus for disabled people. Awareness was raised on disability issues that had not happened before. The formation of a pan-disability organisation, DPA, made up of disabled people speaking and doing things for themselves, was one outcome from this activity.
  • The move away from institutionalised accommodation for disabled people continued during the 1980s (also known as deinstitutionalisation). At the same time government support for community-based services increased. This was reinforced by an amendment to the Education Act enabling the mainstreaming of disabled children into a ‘normal’ school environment.
  • Through the 1990s more concerns were expressed about the limitations of the government provision for reducing social barriers experienced by disabled people. Government funding for support services for disabled people moved from the welfare agency (Department of Social Welfare) to health agencies (Regional Health Authorities).

2000 onwards

  • In 2000/2001, the government developed the New Zealand Disability Strategy. The Strategy was based on the social model of disability, which makes a distinction between impairments (which people have) and disability (which lies in their experience of barriers to participation in society).
  • In 2002 the Office for Disability Issues was set up. Its purpose is to provide a focus on disability across government and to lead the implementation and monitoring of the New Zealand Disability Strategy.
  • In 2006, the New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) Act was passed, making NZSL an official language of New Zealand.
  • New Zealand took a leading role at the United Nations in the development of a convention making explicit the rights of disabled people.
  • New Zealand signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons at the United Nations on 30 March 2007, and ratified it on 26 September 2008.
  • All new legislation and policy should be consistent with the Convention, or New Zealand will be in breach of its obligations and subject to criticism by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
  • Like the New Zealand Disability Strategy, the Convention covers all areas of life, all ages and life stages. In doing so, it has obligations on government and the private sector. However, it is the government that is accountable to the United Nations, and government agencies need to take leadership in encouraging action by the private sector.
  • In 2016 the Government revised the New Zealand Disability Strategy to enable New Zealand to better support disabled people to achieve their potential, and improve the lives of disabled New Zealanders and their families.


Page last updated: