Barring people with disabilities sparks calls for change.

The country’s human rights watchdog is calling for changes to a controversial immigration policy barring people with disabilities such as autism from residence in New Zealand when they need “significant support”.

Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford said the commission was concerned by two recent decisions, highlighted in the Herald on Sunday, to refuse residence to Brazilian disability advocate Juliana Carvalho and Belgian autistic schoolboy Peter Gourle, whose award-winning mathematician step-father Professor Dimitri Leemans slammed the decision in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

“Disabled people and others concerned with the situation should take advantage of the Government’s recently announced 2016 review of the Disability Strategy to make submissions to Government on this matter,” Rutherford said.

“The Disability Commissioner intends to engage with relevant Government agencies to raise concerns about the position of disabled people and their families in the immigration process and to discuss the potential for legislative or policy changes in this area to better support the rights of disabled people.”

Labour immigration spokesman Iain Lees-Galloway has also called for a more “holistic” approach to immigration applications from disabled people and deaf Green MP Mojo Mathers said the “discriminatory approach” was wrong in principle.

“If today’s criteria had been applied to me when my family applied to migrate here back in 1981, it is likely I (or my mother who is a survivor of a major motorcycle accident) would have been rejected as well,” she wrote in a blog.

“It is time for a warmer, kinder, more compassionate immigration policy that respects human rights.”

Even NZ First leader Winston Peters said discretion should have been exercised in Peter Gourle’s case because of his stepfather’s contribution to New Zealand. But he said immigration numbers should be cut to make room for such cases.

“Our capacity to provide a humanitarian response in this and in other cases, including in terms of the number of refugees, is seriously compromised by an unfocused, random immigration policy that is bringing in a net more than 63,000 people every year,” Peters said.

But Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse has no plans to review the policy for disabled people. “My concern is to ensure that the instructions are clear and fair and consistently applied by Immigration NZ, but that when an applicant does get a decision that they are unhappy with, they understand their rights of review and appeal,” he said. “Am I confident that is the case? Yes I am.”

Immigration NZ’s operational manual says residence can only be granted to people with “an acceptable standard of health”, which is defined as “unlikely to impose significant costs or demands on New Zealand’s health services or special education services”.

Autism, physical disability and intellectual disability are listed as “medical conditions deemed to impose significant costs and/or demands on New Zealand’s health and/or education services” when they need “significant support”.

Autism NZ chief executive Dane Dougan said the list was a clear breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. “We are looking to get legal advice on this,” he said.

But immigration lawyer David Ryken said immigration decisions were exempted from the Human Rights Act. The law gave limited discretion to immigration officers because of the risk of corruption, but allowed the Immigration and Protection Tribunal to recognise “special circumstances” on appeal.