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How many disabled people are there in New Zealand?

A blog from Sam Murray, our National Policy Coordinator, for International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

December 3rd is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. A day for celebrating disabled people and the contribution they make to their whānau and communities.

So how many people are we celebrating exactly? How many disabled people are there in New Zealand? 1.1 million people is the estimate from the 2013 Disability Survey. Sometimes people tell me that number seems too high. That is fair enough, but I think you need to understand where that estimate comes from to make an informed judgment.

The Disability Survey is actually two different surveys that Statistics New Zealand runs after the New Zealand Census. There is a large private household survey and a smaller survey of people living in residential facilities. The 2013 Disability Survey of private households interviewed 14,900 adults and 8,100 children (people under 15 years of age). The 2013 Disability Survey of residential homes interviewed 864 people. From this sample of people, Statistics New Zealand makes estimates for the whole population.

That is the number of people interviewed (either by phone or in person), but how do they determine who has a disability? Surprisingly they do not ask people directly. If anyone tells you that 1.1 million people identify as disabled people in New Zealand that is not true. Statisticians have learnt not to ask people directly about disability or impairment. This is because a large number of people will not identify as having a disability.

In the United Kingdom, a survey found that 52 per cent of people who met the Disability Discrimination Act definition of disability did not define themselves as disabled people, especially younger people. The most common reason people gave for not saying they had a disability was that they saw themselves as fit and healthy. Other reasons included people saying they were able to carry out everyday activities. Older people also saw their impairments as just being health problems or part of getting old.

The problem is people still often view disability negatively. As something bad, they want to avoid. So many people will not identify as having a disability, even if they experience challenges and access barriers in the community. Initiatives like the International Day of Persons with Disabilities try to get rid of this negativity. The social model of disability also tries to tackle this issue.

I hope that in the future more people will be happy to identify as having a disability. For now though, statisticians have to approach counting disabled people indirectly. The 2013 Disability Survey asks adults 23 questions about whether they had difficulty with everyday tasks or situations. Caregivers were asked 14 questions about their child’s ability to do everyday tasks, as well as a few direct questions about any behavioural, mental health or development conditions. If people hit a certain threshold of difficulty with tasks, Statistics New Zealand counted them as having a disability. This is regardless of whether they actually saw themselves as having a disability or being disabled people.

The advantage of this method of counting is it identifies a broad range of people who have access needs or face barriers in society. The Disability Survey estimates that 1.1 million people have difficulty completing everyday tasks that the rest of us take for granted. This is why it is so important to consider everyone’s needs when designing buildings, transport, streets, equipment and clothing. This is also why it is important to provide, for example, education and information services in ways that work for everyone. It is very easy to exclude large numbers of people by not considering the diversity of needs and capabilities in the community.

What the Disability Survey does not really show is the size of the disability community. It cannot provide the number of people who identify as people with disabilities or disabled people. It also does not show the number of people that other people judge to have a disability. If your definition of disability only includes people with visible impairments (which it should not, but some people think this way) the Disability Survey estimates will seem too high.

For what it does measure, the Disability Survey provides good estimates. We tend to grossly underestimate the diversity of needs in the community. We imagine only a small number of people have needs that differ from the norm, or have difficulty with everyday tasks. This is not true. On the other hand, if you are seeking to build a movement of disabled activists, 1.1 million is more of a theoretical maximum than the number of people who are likely to join right now. I hope that in time, it will become easier to count the number of disabled people because more disabled people will be willing to be counted. That said the tendency of younger disabled people to not identify could prevent this.

So, do you think the Disability Survey’s estimate of 1.1 million disabled people is too high?

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