Realising disability rights 101

Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This United Nations mandated day is set aside to raise awareness of the issues facing disabled people and also the many human rights victories won by grassroots disability activists over the last four decades around the globe.

This is so as many non-disabled people may not realise that the Disability Rights Movement, of which I am so proudly a part of, has been regarded as the last mass civil rights movement to emerge following in the footsteps of the feminist, anti-racist, LGBQTI+ and other similar movements that arose during the 20th Century.

Consequently, the disability rights community has been able to learn both the positive and negative lessons of the way in which earlier human rights movements conducted their struggles. In this sense, disabled people in the early disability rights movements, both in New Zealand and internationally, undertook effective mass actions to claim legislative and policy victories which have enhanced our human rights along the way.

Before delving into the history of disabled people’s struggles, it’s important to gain some historical context of where we have come from to gain an understanding of the type of society that disability activists (like me) would like to see.

Since historical antiquity, disabled people have been subjected to various models of disability which have emerged largely due to our exclusion for economic, social, cultural or political reasons from society. In ancient times, for example, the Greeks and Romans actively engaged in the killing of physically or learning impaired babies and children due to their being regarded as spiritually deviant beings.

This gave rise to what is now described as the ‘spiritual model of disability’ which theorised that impaired people existed due to past sins committed by their parents or ancestors.

These early models of exclusion sat uneasily with early, albeit, limited attempts at inclusion. This is the case as two of the founding fathers of the modern disability rights movement, Britons Vic Finkelstein and Michael Oliver (two Marxists who hailed from apartheid-era South Africa) found, for example, that disabled people had been engaged as farm labourers in pre-Industrial Revolution Europe.

However, with the emergence of factory-based mass production techniques during the Industrial Revolution, disabled people became a key group within what Karl Marx described as the ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ or surplus labour.

The problem of what to do with the excess of disabled labourers who were judged as being unfit for work in the emerging capitalist society led to the rise of the medical and charitable models of disability. The medical model held that people with impairments needed to have their impairment-based issues addressed through medical treatment before they could participate.

If people couldn’t contribute to the labour market after any treatment or, indeed, at all, under the charitable model, they could seek income from private charity instead. Also, under the medical model (and the flawed pseudo-science of eugenics) people who were deemed unfit to participate in society (such as people with mental distress and learning disabilities) were confined to the growing number of institutions which emerged throughout the Western world and subjected to compulsory sterilisations and other acts of torture.

Therefore, the medical and social models of disability severely impacted on the ability of early disabled people to participate within their societies and denied them basic human rights. Indeed, it was the Marxists Oliver and Finkelstein who first introduced the world to the social model of disability which embodies the idea that it is society itself that creates the attitudinal and environmental barriers that face impaired people – and not their impairments.

This social model of disability was used as a means to overthrow the oppressive medical and charitable models of disability. To this end, disability rights organisations largely run by and for disabled people emerged in the UK with Oliver and Finkelstein founding the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) there in 1972.

Similarly, the United States saw the founding of Disabled in Action during 1970 and in New Zealand the first Coordinating Councils for the Disabled were founded around the same time.

These disability rights movements engaged in mass actions to both free themselves from the nexus of state-backed oppressive legislation and policies and the paternalism of the charitable disability agencies and medical practitioners who effectively controlled the lives of disabled people.

In the United States, early militant actions began with mass protests led by disabled people and their allies against President Richard Nixon’s veto of rehabilitation laws in 1972 and this militancy continued into the 1990s (and indeed beyond) with prominent examples including a mass ‘crawl-in’ - where disability activists crawled up the steps of the American Congress – to protest the slowness in passing what is now the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

This disability radicalism reached our shores in 1978 when a group of blind people (who mainly belonged to the Association of Blind Citizens, New Zealand’s first disability rights organisation founded in 1945) marched up Queen Street to protest the Blind Foundation’s policy of excluding blind people from its governing board. This protest led to the appointment of the first two blind people to sit on the organisation’s board shortly thereafter.

From the late 1970s and early 1980s, disabled New Zealanders and their families/whanau began to see some key legislative victories. These included the insertion of the right in the Education Act 1989 for disabled children to attend their local school and receive an education, the recognition of the need for equal employment opportunities for disabled people in the State Sector Act 1988 and, most importantly, the passage of the Human Rights Act 1993 which made disability discrimination illegal.

Overseas, many Western nations passed disability rights laws and put anti-discrimination policies into effect during the 1990s with the UK and Australia passing Disability Discrimination Acts.

Besides, many developing countries (which have higher disability populations) followed in their wake with, for example, post-apartheid South Africa inserting disability rights protections into their constitution in 1996.

Despite all these victories, though, challenges remain.

Both in Aotearoa and globally, disabled people continue to experience higher rates of unemployment and underemployment, educational exclusion, lack of access to housing and health care, transport and public buildings and facilities.

Disabled people, despite having greater legal and civil rights than previously, also continue to face higher levels of harassment, discrimination and abuse than non-disabled people.

The continuation of these injustices is what stops the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) from being fully realised for disabled people like me and others.

On this International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I challenge governments and non-disabled people both here in Aotearoa and internationally to think of how they can work with disabled people to realise the goal of a fully inclusive, accessible and just society for all. If all societies can do this, then more doors of opportunity will open for disabled people like me and countless others.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.


Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: Thank you.

With thanks to our partners