The Label of Disabled | Tangata Whaikaha

Who do you think of when you hear the word disabled? A person in a wheelchair? A blind person with a seeing-eye dog or someone with Down Syndrome? They are probably unemployed and rely on government support. They love watching the Wiggles, only hang out with other disabled people and the idea of them having a relationship makes you uncomfortable. This is the imagined disabled person.

How many people do you know like this?

In the last New Zealand Disability Survey in 2013, it was estimated that 1.1 million (24%) of New Zealanders were disabled (2). That’s about one out of every four of us.

So who are these disabled people? We are tāngata whaikaha, a name developed to describe “people who are determined to do well, “a phrase now used in place of people with disabilities (3). It is a way to focus on our strengths and ways we’ve adapted, rather than our limitations and labels.

It’s been over four years since my mild traumatic brain injury, and I still do not identify as disabled even though my day-to-day function has changed forever. I can no longer work in the profession I went to university for, and my executive function will be impacted for the rest of my life.

My life pivoted, I accepted I am different, and I adapted. I became a beginner in life again, allowing me to learn new skills and be more patient with my mistakes.

Now, after a lot of time and rehab, most people will not notice that I have a disability. My symptoms are mostly picked up by my loved ones and we jokingly call them my brain burps.

And to most people, I am their friend, sister, daughter, co-worker, neighbour, or just another stranger on the street. I am still a functioning person in society, striving to add value to my community.

People with disabilities, tāngata whaikaha, are everyday people that make up your whanau and community, wanting to get by in life, with some additional limitations and reasonable requests for accommodations.

If you are looking for information or support for your disability, don’t hesitate to contact our Disability Information and Advisory Service at or call 0508 637200.


Written by Claire Lewinski


1. Demographic report for client allocated Ministry of Health Disability ... Manatū Hauora Ministry of Health. (2020, January 27).

2. Disability. Ministry of Health NZ. (2018,August 2).

3. Finding our name: Whaikaha. Ministry of Disabled People.(n.d.).