Disability - Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently asked questions about disability - including what is disability, what language do I use and how many disabled children and young people are there in New Zealand?
What is disability?
The Office for Disability Issues recommends that practitioners apply a ‘social model’ view of disability. The social model of disability was proposed by disability academics in the United Kingdom, in the later half of last century, and has become widely accepted and promoted across the world including in New Zealand (Kelly, 2005). Child, Youth and Family staff were exposed to this model through the Disability Awareness Training that occurred in 2007.
The social model draws on a human rights discourse defining disabled people as an excluded or oppressed social group. It distinguishes between the impairments that people have and the barriers to social participation they experience (Office for Disability Issues). Impairments can be physical, sensory, neurological, psychiatric, intellectual or other impairments (Ministry of Health, 2001).
The social model of disability specifies that disability is not something individuals have; what individuals have are impairments. Disability therefore is the process which happens when society does not provide an environment that takes impairments adequately into account. For example our society is built in a way that assumes we can all see signs, read directions, hear announcements, reach buttons, have the strength to open heavy doors and have stable moods and perceptions (Ministry of Health, 2001).
As Connolly & Ward (2008) state, the social model of disability argues that “the experience of disability is essentially a reflection of the social obstacles and that if society were organized differently…then many people would be able to manage their lives quite successfully without experiencing constant frustration and discrimination (p. 97).”
Government policy and services impacting on disabled people are guided by the New Zealand Disability Strategy. It encourages government agencies and others to remove barriers that prevent the participation and contribution of disabled people to society. Its vision is of an inclusive society where disabled people feel they are highly valued and can have a good life. A report on progress with implementation is presented to Parliament each year by the Minister responsible for disability issues.
New Zealand is also required to implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the government ratified in September 2008. It also follows the social model. This Convention complements the New Zealand Disability Strategy with specific, practical measures for government action. The New Zealand government is required to report regularly to the United Nations on its implementation (UNCROC).
What language do I use when talking about disability?
In line with the social model of disability, it is preferable to use the terminology, ‘disabled people’ rather than ‘people with disabilities’, as disability is not something that people have, but rather the barriers to social participation they experience.
However, you should respect the language used by a person when describing themselves. Some people with impairments may not identify with the language of ‘disabled person’ or ‘person with disabilities’.
The key point is to use language that does not limit a person by a characteristic, such as using a wheelchair, but instead focuses on them as a person.
People can have impairments and these impairments can be intellectual, psychiatric, physical, neurological or sensory, and can be temporary, intermittent or ongoing. However it is preferable not to categorise a person in terms of their impairment type, for example blind or schizophrenic, but instead to use the collective term disabled person. It’s also preferable not to use the term, ‘the disabled’, but rather ‘disabled people’.
The term ‘Deaf people’ or ‘Deaf’ may be used by people who are deaf (limited or no hearing), who identify with the cultural group of people who use sign language as their preferred or first language. The capital ‘D’ is used internationally. Deaf people are different to other people with hearing loss, but who do not use sign language. New Zealand Sign Language was made an official language of New Zealand in 2006.
People with experience of mental illness may not also identify as disabled people.
How many disabled children and young people are there in New Zealand?
In 2006, 10% of children aged 0-14 years had an impairment. That is approximately 90,000 children in New Zealand. More than half of disabled children had an impairment caused by a condition that existed at birth. Approximately one-quarter of disabled children had an impairment caused by disease or illness.
Just over half of all disabled children (52%) had a single impairment and the remaining 48% had multiple impairments. The majority of disabled children had low or medium support needs (Statistics New Zealand, 2006).
Connolly, M., & Ward, T. (2008). Morals, Rights and Practice in the Human Services. Effective and Fair Decision-Making in Health, Social Care and Criminal Justice. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Ministry of Social Development. (2016). The New Zealand Disability Strategy. Wellington. New Zealand.
Statistics New Zealand (2006). Disability Survey.