More Disabled New Zealanders

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1 ,062,000 faces. The 2013 round of the only government survey about disability shows disabled people’s proportion of New Zealand’s population is now 24%.

That’s about one in four. In the 1996 and 2001 surveys it was one in five. In 2006 it was one in six though Statistics NZ is wisely discounting that inexplicable outlier now.

The first set of information released from the 2013 Disability Survey focuses on population proportions. Later releases will add detail about needs.

Why more?

The department says the rise this time may be because of better surveying, more older people, and improving attitudes about disability.

The proportion of the New Zealand population in older age groups is growing, and people in these age groups are more likely to be disabled than younger adults or children.
However, population ageing does not account for all of the increase. People may be more willing to report their limitations as public perception of disability changes; methodological improvements to the survey could also be a contributing factor.

The influence of age

The disability rate increases dramatically with age. The 2013 Disabilty Survey shows 59% of people aged 65+ are disabled,  compared with just 11% of under-15s.

Different age distributions also help explain variations of disabled population rates across different regions and ethnic groups.

Impairment types

Updating my list from previous surveys, out of every 9 disabled New Zealanders:

  • 5 have impaired mobility (getting around) = 567k.
  • 4 have impaired thinking, learning or remembering = 470k.
  • 3 have impaired hearing = 380k.
  • 3 have impaired agility (grabbing things, etc) = 324k.
  • 2 have impaired mental health = 242k.
  • 1 has impaired vision = 168k.
  • 1 has impaired speaking = 128k.

53% of disabled people have more than one type of impairment. Greedy, I know.

Half the picture

Statistics NZ aren’t quite there yet in understanding disability:

For the 2013 Disability Survey, we defined a disability as: ‘an impairment which has a long-term limiting effect on a person’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities. Long-term means six months or longer and limiting effect means a restriction or lack of ability to perform.’

You’ll notice they are missing the whole ‘interaction with surroundings’ part of the model underpinning both the official NZ Disability Strategy and the UN Disability Convention. They’re actually only measuring impairment, though their analysis does not reflect that.

But then they’re hardly alone, and any information is better than none. People working with other population groups this size may be astonished to hear that this 5-yearly survey is the only one about disability conducted by our government, and that we have no cross-tabs into the rest of Statistics NZ’s $90m annual spend on public statistics. This is also the first survey in the series with de-prioritised ethnicity. Stats geeks will get what that shows.

Less than half the picture

Let’s also note in passing that Statistics NZ shares the ignorance of some other international agencies in adopting an inconsistent approach rooted in not understanding what disability is.

People were not considered to have a disability if an assistive device (such as glasses or crutches) eliminated their impairment.

Cured! So people who use hearing aids and spectacles don’t count as impaired (“a disability” = an impairment). However, people who use wheelchairs do count. Go figure.

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