Story: Disability and disability organisations

Page 1. Care until the early 20th century

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Until the 20th century disabled people were usually cared for by their families. Those with severe conditions might receive hospital care, while those with psychiatric disabilities often ended up in asylums. A few people with disability were reduced to making their living on the streets, doing things such as busking.


During the 19th century accidents and injuries were a leading cause of disability. Some industries like forestry and mining were very dangerous, and loss of limbs or senses from events such as falling trees or rocks, or mine explosions, were relatively common.

First organisations

Slowly organisations were formed to care for people with disabilities. These included the Sumner Deaf and Dumb Institution in Christchurch (now the Van Asch Deaf Education Centre). Founded in 1880, it was the world’s first government-funded residential school for the training of deaf people who could not speak. In 1890 the Jubilee Institute for the Blind was opened in Auckland. It was a residential home built and maintained by private interests using public funds.

Although attitudes to residents were sometimes oppressive – for example sign language was banned at Sumner – these two institutions were important in providing sites where deaf and blind people could develop their own cultures. It was from these beginnings that two important organisations of people with disabilities developed – Deaf Aotearoa New Zealand and the Association of Blind Citizens.

Home of Compassion

Some organisations were church-based. In 1899 Mother Mary Joseph Aubert and her Sisters of Compassion moved to Wellington, from their previous base at Jerusalem, on the Whanganui River, and founded the St Joseph Home for Incurables (the chronically and terminally ill) at Island Bay. This was followed in 1907 by the Home of Compassion, which cared for children with a variety of disabilities, including spina bifida, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

State care

The state followed in 1910, when hospital and charitable aid boards were amalgamated, and old people’s homes became convenient dumping grounds for physically disabled people of all ages.

War wounded

In 1919 there were 39 men receiving permanent pensions for total disablement resulting from war injuries. In Christchurch they included ‘two single men who have suffered the amputation of both legs ... [Another] has lost the left eye, the left leg and the right thumb, and has a shell wound in the right hand.’1 By 1924 the number of servicemen on permanent pensions had risen to 1,078.


The state also became heavily involved in providing care for those disabled by war. The issue came to the fore during the South African War (1899–1902), to which New Zealand sent forces. Premier Richard Seddon declared that the state would employ those able to work and a state pension would be available to those who could not. During the First World War more than 1,000 New Zealand men had their limbs amputated. Artificial limbs were expensive: wooden legs cost £22 each at a time when the average skilled wage was £2 per week.


The state took the main role in caring for men disabled by war. In 1919 part of Trentham Army Camp was converted into an orthopaedic hospital capable of caring for 700 patients. Convalescent homes were opened in Rotorua and Hanmer. Smaller homes for patients with severe disabilities operated in Wellington and Auckland. A number of returned soldiers suffering from shell shock (post-traumatic stress disorder) were sent to asylums.

Some servicemen with disabilities made an important contribution to national life, including John A. Lee, a writer and influential Labour politician, who lost an arm in the First World War.

  1. Poverty Bay Herald, 5 December 1919, p. 8. Back
How to cite this page:

Martin Sullivan, 'Disability and disability organisations - Care until the early 20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2024)

Story by Martin Sullivan, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 12 Jul 2018