Story: Disability sport

Page 1. Development of disability sport

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Government policy

When the first Labour government passed the Physical Welfare and Recreation Act 1937, members of Parliament agreed in principle on the need to improve the physical fitness of every New Zealander. The Auckland Primary Schools Sports Association had found that 15% of schoolchildren were not participating in sport, for reasons that included physical disability. 

Following the outbreak of the second world war, little attention was given to disability sport until the third Labour government passed the Recreation and Sport Act 1973. Under this Act, an Advisory Committee for Recreation for the Disabled (ACORD) was established to provide advice on matters relating to disability sport. Members of ACORD were selected for their general knowledge of and interest in disability sport. This was the first government initiative specifically designed to increase sporting participation by New Zealanders with disabilities.

The United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981 was a call to raise awareness and understanding of disability and improve the lives of disabled people. One in 10 New Zealanders were identified as living with disabilities. Regional committees were established to promote their participation in ‘normal’ sport and sport deliverers became more aware of their needs. The impact of this campaign was short-lived.

The Hillary Commission was established in 1987 to facilitate equal opportunities for sports participation by all New Zealanders, but it was another decade before the first No Exceptions strategy to improve the quality of life of disabled people through participation and achievement in sport was produced. 

SPARC (Sport and Recreation New Zealand), which replaced the Hillary Commission in 2003, produced an updated No Exceptions strategy and implementation plan in 2005. Essentially no different to the earlier plan, this document aligned with the first New Zealand Disability Strategy. Lead agencies including Special Olympics New Zealand received funding from SPARC to assist with the delivery of this strategy. Paralympics New Zealand’s focus on high-performance sport was supported by High Performance Sport New Zealand funding, while the Halberg Foundation was delegated responsibility for allocating approximately $300,000 per annum to community disability sport.

In 2019 Sport New Zealand (the successor to SPARC) research found that New Zealanders with disabilities continued to have less involvement in sport and active recreation than their able-bodied counterparts. In response, a third disability plan was released, with $7 million over three years committed to supporting regional and national sporting organisations to improve the delivery of disability sport at the community level.

Local disability sport delivery 

Disability sport has been primarily delivered at the local level. Many individuals and organisations have led the way. One such individual is Murray Halberg, who overcame a rugby injury at 17, which left his left arm withered, to win the 5,000 metres at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He had won the 3-mile race at the 1958 Cardiff British Empire and Commonwealth Games, and repeated this feat in Perth in 1962. In 1963, Murray established the Halberg Trust (now the Halberg Foundation) to enhance the lives of New Zealanders with physical disabilities by enabling them to participate in sport and recreation.

Father Leo Close, who represented Ireland in the International Paraplegic Games (1957, 1961, 1962, 1963) and the first two Paralympic Games (1960 and 1964), helped establish organised sport for people with disabilities in New Zealand after settling in Dunedin in 1964. Father Leo represented New Zealand at the 1968 and 1972 Paralympic Games and was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1975 for services to the paraplegic movement. 

Until the 1960s the only organised sport for people with disabilities was children’s swimming, organised by branches of the Crippled Children Society (CCS). A number of Southland-based disabled swimmers competed in the provincial championships, and one took part in the New Zealand championships.

In 1965 disabled athletes formed the first paraplegic and physically disabled regional association in Auckland. This was followed by Canterbury (1967), Wellington (1969), and 14 others over the years. Often referred to as the Parafed Network, these regional organisations provide a range of sport and active recreation opportunities for people with physical disabilities around the country. 

The first inter-regional tournament was held at Christchurch in 1966. The first National Disabled Championships took place in 1968, with 29 athletes competing. The last Paralympics New Zealand national championships was held in Hamilton in 2011.

In 1992 CCS held the first Independence Games for disabled young people aged between eight and 17. This two-day event has been the entry point for many future Paralympians. Management of the Independence Games was transferred to the Halberg Foundation in 2017, and they are now known as the Halberg Games.

How to cite this page:

Ian McDonald, 'Disability sport - Development of disability sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/disability-sport/page-1 (accessed 16 August 2022)

Story by Ian McDonald, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Feb 2022 with assistance from Catriona McBean