Overview of Key Concepts

Definition of disability

Disability is a term covering personal impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. It can result from accidents, injuries, congenital conditions, genetics, long-term conditions, and health issues. It is important to note that disabilities can be visible or hidden (e.g. mobility, learning, communication).

We use the definition of disability that is used by the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Social Development, and the General Census which determines disability funding criteria. Disability is defined as any self-perceived limitation in activity resulting from a long-term condition or health problem.

Social vs the medical models as they apply to disability

The social model of disability used in this plan determines that the barriers experienced by disabled people are caused by how society is organised rather than by a person’s impairment or difference.

Focusing on the impairments, disability, and a health service response typifies a medical model approach. Disabled people developed the social model of disability because the traditional medical model did not explain their personal experience of disability or help to develop more inclusive ways of living.

Why we refer to ‘disabled people’ and tāngata whaikaha Māori

In New Zealand, we use the term disabled people. During the development of the New Zealand Disability Strategy, there was much discussion and consultation on the language used. In the end, ‘disabled people’ was chosen, rather than, for example, ‘a person with disability’, ‘people with disabilities’ or ‘people with experience of disability’. The reasoning was that:

  • people are people first,
  • they are people with impairments e.g. a person with a vision impairment, or a hearing loss, or limited mobility. The attitudinal and physical barriers in the world we live in disables them, and
  • they are disabled people (or, more accurately, people disabled by the way we build and organise our world). ‘Disabled’ refers to things outside the person that impact on them and put barriers in the way of their participation.

Tāngata whaikaha Māori refers exclusively to disabled Māori. When referring to the whole disabled population we use tāngata whaikaha Māori/Disabled people.

“Tāngata whaikaha means people who are determined to do well or is certainly a goal that they reach for. It fits nicely with the goals and aims of people with disabilities who are determined in some way to do well and create opportunities for themselves as opposed to being labelled, as in the past.” Whāia Te Ao Mārama The Māori Disability Action Plan 2018 to 2022.


The traditional understanding of whānau focused on family connections. More recently, the term has been used with a broader reach, and whānau can mean the people a person sees as enhancing their wairua and mana. This may include friends, social connections, or work colleagues. The meaning is centred on those who provide a sense of belonging.

Mātauranga Māori

Mātauranga Māori is the knowledge, comprehension or understanding of everything seen and unseen handed down from tupuna Māori and incorporates contemporary Māori mind and context. It is a body of knowledge, experience, values and philosophy of Māori incorporating understanding of the spiritual and physical dimensions.