More disabled young people in New Zealand face inequities than previously known – research shows

More disabled young people in New Zealand face inequities than previously known  – research shows
July 18, 2023

Research published today by Growing Up in New Zealand has found that more young people and families experience disability than shown before, and these young people are experiencing inequities in many areas of their lives leading researchers to recommend that disabled young people are made a priority across government.

According to Dr Emma Marks, a research fellow at Waipapa Taumata Rau, the University of Auckland, “Many young people and families are impacted by disability, and while some young people with disabilities were thriving, we found many experienced worse quality of life, greater depression and anxiety symptoms, poorer relationships, lower school engagement, and they often felt less safe in their neighbourhoods. These findings show clear inequities across many aspects of these young people’s lives.”

This research is based on information from around 4,500 twelve-year olds in the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study and the findings are part of a series of research snapshots called “Now We Are Twelve – Life in early adolescence”.

In the research, disabled young people were defined as those who were reported having significant difficulty with seeing, hearing, mobility, remembering, concentrating, learning new things, self-care (such as washing and dressing), communicating, accepting change to routines, or controlling their behaviour, either through self-report or as reported by their main caregiver. It also included those diagnosed with depression or anxiety. Using these questions, researchers found around one in five young people had a significant functional impairment indicative of a disability. If additional learning needs such as those with a specific learning disability or autism were included, then this number rose to nearly a quarter of young people aged twelve-years old.

The research also showed a greater number of disabled young people had not been able to see a GP when they had needed to, and a greater proportion who had not been able to participate in extra-curricular activities that they wanted to.

Dr Marks stated that “Urgent action is needed to improve access to services to ensure that services are inclusive and responsive to the needs of all young people, including those with disabilities.”

According to Dr Marks, supporting these young people at home, in education, and in their communities is essential to improving their wellbeing.

“We need policies to remove inequities that disabled young people experience across multiple domains such as, reducing barriers to educational support, and increasing support for families experiencing disability.”

Researchers also looked at families with disability finding almost 30 percent of families in the study had a disabled parent or young person in their household. These families were also found to be experiencing inequities including living in higher deprivation neighbourhoods, and poorer quality housing. Also being more likely to live in rental accommodation, moving house more often, and experiencing more material hardship over time.

According to Dr Marks, there is considerable work to do to improve the livelihoods of disabled young people and their families.

“New Zealand needs to increase support through schools and community resources to help meet the needs of young people and their families. More needs to be done for disabled young people to be able to lead happy and fulfilling lives. We urge the government to ensure this is a priority.”


For more information, please contact:  

Julia Crosfield  

Media and Communications, Growing Up in New Zealand  

027 282 4896  

Saraid Black

Communications Manager, Growing Up in New Zealand

09 923 7390 or 0274 732 211  

Background for editors:  

- See the research, “The impact of disability on young people and their family”  

- This research is part of the “Now We Are Twelve” snapshot series looking at the development and well-being of twelve-year olds in New Zealand.

- The series is being published between April and June 2023 and covers the following topics: ethnic and gender identity (published 05/04/23); material hardship (published 05/04/23); food insecurity (published 01/05/23); housing and homelessness (published 01/05/23); school engagement (31/05/23); COVID-19 pandemic (published 13/06/23); experiences of anxiety and depression (13/06/23); impact of disability (published today); and relationships.

- See the “Now We Are Twelve” snapshot series here: