Disability organisations were shaped by ideas of their day. In the 19th century responses to disability were based on charity and benevolence. Organisations such as the Sumner Deaf and Dumb Institution provided services and care to those with severe disabilities.
During the 20th century the approach to disability was medicalised, reflecting the growing power of doctors and welfare professionals in the sector. Disability was seen as something that might be cured through medical intervention. If the cure was only partial, then rehabilitation experts stepped in to help the individual operate within mainstream society. If the disability could not be cured, then the individual was very often sent to be cared for in specialised institutions apart from society.
Disability organisations that formed during this period – such as the Intellectually Handicapped Children’s Parents Association (which became IHC) – often began as feisty organisations fighting for the rights of people with disability. But by the late 1950s they had become professionalised, medicalised, controlled by people without disabilities and seen by some as autocratic and paternalistic.
Impairments not disabilities
In the late 20th century people with disabilities redefined the term disability. According to a 2001 government report: ‘Disability is not something individuals have. What individuals have are impairments. They may be physical, sensory, neurological, psychiatric, intellectual or other impairments. Disability is the process which happens when one group of people create barriers by designing a world only for their way of living, taking no account of the impairments other people have.’1
From the 1970s disabled people developed their own model of disability: the social model. It argued that individuals had impairments rather than disabilities and redefined disability as the negative social response to impairment. The model argued that ‘disablist’ attitudes restricted people with impairments from fully participating in society. Disability could be eliminated by creating a non-disabling society.
Such thinking led to the deinstitutionalisation of disabled care. Specialist institutions were closed and residents placed back with families or put in small residential-care facilities in existing communities. Students with a disability were integrated into mainstream schools. Support was provided by specialist service providers, who visited homes and worked in schools.
In the early 21st century the government introduced a minister and an Office for Disability Issues, which engaged people with disabilities and their organisations in making public policy. The Office of Disability Issues has the goal of creating a ‘non-disabling society’ – a place where people with disabilities have equal opportunity. It has the responsibility to guide the work of other government agencies on disability issues between 2016 and 2026. It also works with employers and businesses to achieve goals of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2007). This government agency liaises with community organisations supporting people with disabilities.
Other new initiatives included:
- The New Zealand disability strategy, which aimed to create a non-disabling society
- the passing of the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006, making sign language an official language in New Zealand
- the repeal of the Disabled Persons Employment Promotion Act 1960, which had created sheltered workshops and low pay rates for workers with disabilities
- the 2006 closure of the Kimberley Centre near Levin, the last remaining institution for people with disabilities in New Zealand.