Your rights

A fully inclusive society recognises and values disabled people as equal participants. Their needs are understood as integral to the social and economic order and not identified as “special”.

For information presented in NZSL please visit this section here.

Human rights are what people need to live with dignity and enjoy freedom. All people have human rights, including all people with disabilities.

People with disabilities have the right to

  • The equal enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.
  • Education and the ability to access information.
  • Choose where to live and who to live with.
  • Use one's own language including NZSL.
  • Be treated with respect, dignity and equity. We also have the right to not be harassed, taunted or teased because of who we are. 

Everyone is equally entitled to human rights without discrimination. Discrimination happens when someone is treated unfairly or less favourably than another person in the same or similar circumstances. Discrimination can be direct or indirect, and generally takes the form of exclusion or rejection from something.

People with disabilities may experience unfair treatment because of things such as how they look or  think, or their reliance on a guide dogs, wheelchairs or other remedial means. Discrimination can also be subtle, creating systemic barriers that lock people out of social and economic opportunities.

What laws protect your rights

The Human Rights Act makes discrimination unlawful when it occurs in:

  • government or state sector activities
  • public education and health services
  • employment
  • business partnerships
  • industrial and professional associations
  • qualifying bodies and vocational training bodies
  • access to public places, vehicle and facilities
  • access to goods and services
  • access to land, housing and accommodation
  • and access to education.

The Act covers disabilities, which people have presently, have had in the past, or which they are believed to have. It is also unlawful to discriminate against relatives or associates of people with a disability, because of that disability.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act sets out a range of civil and political rights, including among other things, the right to freedom of expression, the right to religious belief, the right to freedom of movement, and the right to be free from discrimination.

Every year we field thousands of complaints and queries from people across the country. Nine out of ten complaints are resolved by our team of mediators.

If you experience or indirect discrimination you can complain  to the Human Rights Commission. Find our more information about using your rights here.

To find out what the Human Rights Act means by disability, as well as the exceptions that apply, you can view this part of our Enquiries, Complaints, and Support section.

Disability Complaints Guide

The Right to Sign

Deaf New Zealanders access to their own language is central to health, education and justice outcomes. New Zealand Sign Language is one of our three official languages and as such, you have a legal right to speak NZSL in legal and official proceedings. Learn more about New Zealand's official languages here.

The Commission conducted an inquiry into the use and promotion of New Zealand Sign Language as an official language of New Zealand. Learn more about the inquiry here.

Accommodating disability at work and school

Reasonable steps should be taken in educational and work environments and in the delivery of public services to recognise and accommodate people with disabilities. Read more here.

Caring for disabled family members

The Human Rights Act states that it is unlawful to discriminate against relatives or associates of people with a disability, because of that disability. In 2012 the Court of Appeal issued a declaration that a Ministry of Health policy that excluded the plaintiffs from payment for providing disability support services to their disabled adult family member was discriminatory. Click this link to learn what that decisions means for people looking after their disabled adult family members.

Disabled children's right to education

Two pieces of legislation govern rights to education in New Zealand – the Human Rights Act and the Education Act.

The Human Rights Act makes it:

Unlawful to refuse or fail to admit a person as a pupil or student; or to admit a person as a pupil or a student on less favourable terms and conditions than would otherwise be made available; or to deny or restrict access to any benefits or services provided by the establishment; or to exclude a person as a pupil or a student or subject him or her to any other detriment, by reason of disability.

The Education Act states that “people who have special educational needs (whether because of disability or otherwise) have the same rights to enrol and receive education at State schools as people who do not”.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is the first human rights convention of the 21st century. It gives voice, visibility and legitimacy to disabled people and their issues in New Zealand and the rest of the world.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities gives voice, visibility and legitimacy to disabled people and their issues in New Zealand and the rest of the world. It is aimed at protecting the dignity of persons with disabilities and ensuring their equal treatment under the law including the right to health services, education and employment.

New Zealand has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This means New Zealand has a legal obligation to respect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Convention. This is overseen by the Ministry of Social Development (Office for Disability Issues).

The Commission has produced a short resource in plain language setting out what the Disability Convention is and what it means for disabled people in Aotearoa. It is available in a range of accessible formats here. You can also access a wide range of CRPD resources here.

Mental Illness and the Human Rights Act

It can be unlawful to treat people differently because:

  • they have experience of mental illness now
  • they have had experience of mental illness in the past
  • someone thinks they have, or have had, experience of mental illness
  • being treated differently because of mental illness is not always unlawful. The Human Rights Act sets out certain areas of life where it is unlawful.

These are the areas of life where it is unlawful to treat someone differently because of mental illness:

  • Government or public sector activities (including public mental health services, Work and Income (WINZ), Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC), and Inland Revenue Department (IRD)
  • employment (including job advertisements, job interviews, job offers, working conditions and pay, being forced to retire or leave, or being fired)
  • access to education and training (including going to school or polytechnic, and using study support services)
  • access to public places, vehicles and facilities (including public transport, taxis, parks, pools and libraries)
  • provision of goods and services (including insurance, hire purchase or house loan)
  • provision of land, housing and accommodation (including finding a place to live or being asked to leave a house or flat)
  • industrial and professional associations, qualifying bodies and vocational training bodies (including clubs and unions).

When it is lawful to treat someone different:

The law says that people can be treated differently sometimes. Under the Human Rights Act, lawful discrimination includes actions such as:

  • advertising for a woman to work as a counsellor with other women
  • helping a disadvantaged group to achieve equality
  • government or public sector activities that are reasonable, lawful and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society.

Do I always have my human rights?

People with experience of mental illness often feel they have lost their rights, particularly if they have to go into hospital or receive treatment. This is not the case.

People who are assessed and treated for a mental disorder under the Mental Health Act do lose the important right to choose and consent to that assessment and treatment. However, they still have other rights, such as:

  • the right to seek a consultation with a psychiatrist of their choosing to get a second opinion
  • the right to request a lawyer for advice
  • the right to receive mail
  • the right to company.

Once a person engages with a mental health service provider, the services provided should be consistent with the Code of Health and Disability Consumers’ Rights 1996. Go to the Health and Disability Commissioner's website to view those rights.

Disability rights in New Zealand report

Read the Commission's report card on the state of disability rights in New Zealand: Rights of disabled people – Tikanga o te hunga haua (also available in Word and HTML) for a comprehensive view on the human rights situation in Aotearoa.

Podcast 'Christchurch: An Accessible City?' – Speak Up – Kōrerotia

For the Commission's January 2016 Podcast, host Sally chatted with the HRC's Erin Gough, as well as Lorraine Guthrie, Ruth Jones and John Bourke. You can listen here.

If you have further questions about the laws that protect your rights you can either view our Enquiries, Complaints, and Support section or our Frequently Asked Questions section.

Visit our Using your rights section to find out what your options are if you think you have faced racial discrimination.

You can visit this section for more info about the rights of people with disabilities.