Young Women and Disability

Disability is not inability. Disability is diversity.

1 in 4 women and girls in Aotearoa New Zealand live with a disability

Disability can be anything from physical impairment to neuro-diversity to sensory conditions to learning difficulties to mental illness and more. And some people experience multiple disabilities. They are by no means a homogenous group.

The New Zealand Disability Strategy describes disability as “something that happens when people with impairments face barriers in society; it is society that disables us, not our impairments, this is the thing all disabled people have in common. It is something that happens when the world we live in has been designed by people who assume that everyone is the same.”

Young women with access needs often face a triple whammy of discrimination: as women, as persons with access needs and as young people. Add in other intersectional factors such as ethnicity, sexual identity, or type of disability, and the barriers only increases.

At the heart of it is that young women with access needs are too often denied agency by stigma and prejudice that assumes they are less capable than they are. 

The top issues I heard from those in the sector are: 


This is not just obstacles when getting around, we’re talking inaccessible products and services, information and communication barriers, and a general lack of understanding of why access matters. For young women with access needs, barriers to access have a massive impact on self-esteem at a time in life when, like all young women, their self-confidence is already taking a hit from negative body image, social media use, cultural expectations, peer pressure and, in some cases, emotional and physical abuse. 

Young women with access needs crave independence and it is vitally important that they are able participate fully in all areas of life with dignity.

Action: Endorse the Access Alliance campaign urging the New Zealand Government to introduce legislation (The Accessibility for New Zealanders Act), to ensure people with disabilities can fully participate in their communities and ensure the New Zealand economy and society can benefit from disabled people’s contributions.

Wellbeing and Health (Sexual Health and Reproductive Health especially)

Through YWCA Auckland’s work we know that girls and young women between the ages of 14 to 25 are, for the most part, social creatures who prioritise spending time with friends and exploring their increasing independence. Girls and young women with access needs are still widely perceived as merely recipients of care, are consistently undervalued and suffer from social exclusion. They are also the least likely to enjoy their sexual and reproductive health and rights and are more likely to be victims of violence than non-disabled people. 

Action: Be aware and be an advocate. In both formal and non-formal educational settings, comprehensive sexuality education for all girls and young women with disabilities should be available and accessible and which is gender responsive, rights based, and adolescent and youth friendly. And tell the Government to prioritise the funding of services that specifically target girls and young women with access needs.

A lack of representation in all facets of leadership

Women with access needs have almost no presence in politics, in high levels of business or government, or as members of boards or advisory groups. 

Strong female role models are vital for young women with access needs. Research conducted by the University of Auckland for YWCA Auckland12 in 2015 found that when young women get exposure to positive female role models - particularly those defying gender norms and societal norms - it expands what they see as possible for themselves, encourages their  ambitions, and sets them on a course to becoming role models themselves. 

Girls cannot be what they cannot see.

Action: Use your social media to share stories about women with access needs and their experiences so that these can be used to motivate and inspire others, but also to broaden people’s understanding of leadership and where women with access needs can lead and are leading.


Through our insights process, we believe the transition between education and work is a critical period in the lives of young people.

Women with access needs are the most marginalised in New Zealand’s labour market. Young people with access needs are four times more likely not to be in Employment, Education or Training than non-disabled young people and 48% of women with disabilities earn less than $30,000 per year, compared with 28% of male workers with disabilities.

Unlocking the employment potential of young women with disabilities is critical both for their independence and for self-worth.

Action: The 2018 Human Rights Commission Report Tracking Equality at Work makes a number of recommendations to address this issue and YWCA Auckland endorses these specific recommendations

Those of us folks with no access needs have to be active allies:

  • Support young women with access needs’ voices and be advocates alongside them
  • Stop being afraid of disability
  • Understand a person's disability doesn't define her, but may be an important part of her identity.
  • Never have low expectations for someone with disabilities.

You can download and read our Young Women and Disability in Aotearoa New Zealand Insight report here