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Education: Access and learning support for disabled and Deaf students

Your rights to state-funded education

Education and Training Act 2020, ss 34, 37

The Education Act says that disabled students have the same rights as any students to state education. It also allows children and young people who require “special education” to stay at school until they’re 21.

In New Zealand at the moment the law on disability discrimination in the public education system is messy. There are two main laws that are relevant here:

  • our education laws (the Education and Training Act 2020) include a statement of the right of disabled people (those with “special educational needs”) to equal access to state education but the courts have said you can’t go to them to enforce this right
  • the Bill of Rights Act protects disabled people from discrimination by government and state officials in all areas of life, including education – this right can be enforced in the courts.

We explain those two areas of the law below, for people who want to use the courts to get better access to education.

Enforcing your rights to public education under New Zealand’s Education and Training Act: The law is messy

Education and Training Act 2020, ss 33, 34; Case: Attorney-General v Daniels [2003] 2 NZLR 742 (CA)

In 2020, the  main law on education was replaced by the Education and Training Act 2020. Like the old Education Act 1989, it says that all students are entitled to a free, state education, no matter what behavioural or other difficulties they have. But the new Act now says: “students who have special educational needs (whether because of disability or otherwise) have the same rights to enrol, attend,and receive education at State schools as people who do not.” This states a stronger right to education by adding the right to attend school, not just to enrol and receive education. The point is that all students should be able to fully participate in all school activities whenever the school is open.

But the Court of Appeal said in 2003 that  the right to enrol and receive education (as it was stated in the old Education Act) isn’t one that you can take to court to get enforced. The rights in the Act are just there to guide the government.

So the law at the moment says that you can’t go to court to enforce rights under the Education Act if, for example, you haven’t been allowed to enrol at your local school, because of your learning support needs.

Prospects for challenging the courts’ current approach to education law

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Art 24; UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art 23

But in the time since that 2003 case, New Zealand ratified the United Nations Disability Convention, which recognises that disabled people have the right to an education, without discrimination and with equal opportunities. Also, because New Zealand’s Supreme Court, our highest court, hasn’t looked at this issue, it could still be worth taking it through the courts for someone who has enough money and energy to do so.

The IHC organisation is currently trying to do this, on behalf of hundreds of disabled students and their whānau, over the difficulties disabled students have with enrolling at their local school, fully participating in school life and accessing the curriculum. The IHC complaint has been in process since 2008.As of 2021, it is  waiting to be heard by the Human Rights Review Tribunal. The result could make a big difference to every disabled person’s experience of education. You can follow the progress at www.ihc.org.nz/ihcs-education-complaint

Taking a case under the Bill of Rights Act

New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, ss 5, 19; Case: MOH v Atkinson [2012] NZCA 184

As well as rights under the Education Act (see above), the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act might make a future court case about access to education more successful. The Act says that everyone has the right to be free from discrimination from government and state officials, including state schools, and including on the grounds of disability. This right is one that you can take to court to get enforced. The Bill of Rights Act says that the government can put limits on that right, but those limits have to be reasonable.

The Court of Appeal (the second highest court in New Zealand) has set down some guidelines for applying that Bill of Rights protection in a disability context. The judges said the disadvantage you’re caused by the discrimination needs to be ‘substantial’ (not trivial). They also said that in deciding whether the discrimination involved the kind of reasonable limit that’s allowed under the Bill or Rights Act, the court would need to consider the aims of the particular government policy or action, and how those aims connected to the discrimination.

How can I enforce my right to education without going to court?

Code of Health & Disability Services Consumers’ Rights; UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Art 24; UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art 23

If you have a problem at school, the best place to start solving it is at school, with teachers, the principal and if necessary, the Board of Trustees. You can also speak to staff at the Learning Support section of your local Ministry of Education office.

If you’re having trouble getting the school to recognise your rights, it’s a good idea to put the issues down in writing, in a letter to the school. Make sure you mention your rights, and the particular laws or United Nations conventions that are the source of those rights, to remind people of the government’s obligations.

As well as the rights mentioned in the previous section, you can mention these:

  • The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires the government to recognise the special needs of mentally and physically disabled children, and to ensure that disabled children have effective access to education (Article 23).
  • The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises that disabled people have the right to an education, without discrimination and with equal opportunities (Article 24).
  • The Health and Disability Commissioner Act 1994 sets out health services consumer rights in a special code (the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights). The Act covers any organisation which provides a health service to the public, including services provided in schools, such as a school nurse or physiotherapist. These services must be provided at an appropriate standard.

Specialist schools

Students with high learning support needs can also be enrolled in specialist schools to give them extra support. Some of these are day schools, and some are residential. These include two Deaf Education Centres. See “Deaf students”.

For information about specialist schools, see www.education.govt.nz/school/student-support/special-education/day-special-schools-for-students-with-high-needs

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Disability rights

Where to go for more support

COVID-19 information


The Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA) has up-to-date COVID-19 information for the disabled community on their website. They also post new information on their Facebook page and their Information Exchange newsletter. You can sign up by going to the website linked above. For more information about DPA, see below.

Community Law


Your local Community Law Centre can provide free initial legal advice and information.

Auckland Disability Law



ADL provides assistance and referrals to disabled people on their legal issues, and work with other Community Law Centres, legal professionals and community organisations to raise disability awareness and achieve the best outcome for disabled people.

Office for Disability Issues


The Office for Disability Issues is the focal point in government on disability issues.

Human Rights Commission


This page on the HRC website focuses on the Commission’s work around both individual and systemic disability discrimination. There are resources available in multiple accessible formats.

Health and Disability Commissioner


Phone: 0800 11 22 33
Email: hdc@hdc.org.nz

The Health and Disability Commissioner has a range of pamphlets and other information on health and disability issues.

Contact a Health and Disability Advocate

Phone: 0800 555 050

Make a complaint to the Commissioner

Phone: 0800 11 22 33
Email: hdc@hdc.org.nz

PO Box 1791, Auckland

You can make a complaint by phoning the Commissioner’s office toll-free, by email, by filling in the online complaint form or by writing to them.

Ministry of Health Services and Support


Publicly funded health and disability services available in New Zealand.

Disabled Persons Assembly


The DPA is a pan-disability organisation. DPA works to improve social indicators for disabled people and for disabled people be recognised as valued members of society. DPA and its members work with the wider disability community, other disabled persons’ organisations, government agencies, service providers, international disability organisations and the public.

People First


People First New Zealand is a self-advocacy organisation that is led and directed by people with learning (intellectual) disability. People First has a free Disability Information and Advice Service and they also produce legal resources in Easy Read form which are free to download from their website.

Deaf Aotearoa


Deaf Aotearoa is a national organisation representing the voice of Deaf people, and the national service provider for Deaf people in New Zealand.

Deaf Aotearoa also works closely with Deaf communities, government agencies and other organisations to increase awareness, promote New Zealand Sign Language and strengthen the rights of Deaf people.

Family Violence – It’s Not OK


Phone: 0800 456 450

“It’s not OK” is a community-driven behaviour change campaign to reduce family violence in New Zealand. Its goal is to change attitudes and behaviour that tolerate any kind of family violence. The website has resources for families who are experiencing abuse. It’s not OK is an initiative housed within the Ministry of Social Development.

Family violence and disabled people


Inclusive Education


This site provides New Zealand educators with practical strategies, suggestions and resources to support the diverse needs of all learners.

Attitude Toolbox: The Whole Truth about Courts and Justice


This accessible video has information about the New Zealand justice system and courts. The video is presented in New Zealand Sign Language and fully subtitled in English.

New Zealand Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal


This Tribunal hears and determines disciplinary proceedings brought against health practitioners.

Public Trust


Public Trust is New Zealand’s largest provider of Wills and estate administration services.

Te Rōpū Taurima


Te Rōpū Taurima is a kaupapa Māori service that supports people of all ethnicities with intellectual impairments around New Zealand.

Le Va


Le Va supports Pasifika families and communities to unleash their full potential and have the best possible health and wellbeing outcomes.

Blind Low Vision NZ

(previously called Blind Foundation)


Blind Low Vision NZ is New Zealand’s main provider of support to New Zealanders who are blind or have low vision.



Phone: 0800 24 33 33

Achieve is a national network established to ensure equal opportunity and access to post-secondary education and training for people with impairments.

Privacy Commissioner


Phone: 0800 803 909
Email: enquiries@privacy.org.nz

You can download the pamphlet “Your Health Information: Know Your Privacy Rights” from the Privacy Commissioner’s website, at: www.privacy.org.nz

You can also download a copy of the Health Information Privacy Code from: www.privacy.org.nz/the-privacy-act-and-codes/codes-of-practice/health-information-privacy-code-1994

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