Australia needs a Royal Commission into the violence, abuse and neglect of people with disabilities

| July 22, 2016

We, as a nation, must review our attitudes and actions that enable and reinforce the abuse, neglect and violence against disabled people. Cheryl McDonnell says we need the power of a Royal Commission to review what has happened in the past, how it happened, and to understand what must be done to ensure the end of the abuse.

People with disabilities and disabled persons’ organisations have been calling for a Royal Commission since the Senate Standing Committees on Community Affairs: Violence, abuse and neglect against people with disability in institutional and residential settings, including the gender and age related dimensions, and the particular situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability, and culturally and linguistically diverse people with disability, handed down their report on the 25th November 2015.

In numerous submissions to the Senate Inquiry story after story is recounted of physical, sexual and mental assaults, bruises, broken bones, near-deaths, deaths, restraint, name calling, isolation, segregation, vitriol spewed out over disabled people, medical care denied, basic human needs refused and a complete trampling of human rights. Many of the submissions are the very stuff of nightmares. For the people for whom those stories are or were their lives, it is simply, and to the great shame of this nation, reality.

While there are calls for Royal Commissions into many issues that might or might not be of interest to the general public, the call for a Royal Commission into abuse of People with disabilities is long overdue and sorely needed so that society can, for perhaps the first time, truly understand the many attitudes, actions, policies, and procedures that dehumanise people with disabilities to such an extent that in many situations it is ‘routine’, ‘acceptable’ and ‘permissible’ to neglect, abuse and commit acts of violence against people with disabilities and totally dissociate them from their human rights.

Watching the proceedings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse  it becomes apparent that the forms of abuse specific to people with disabilities, that differ from the abuse that is reported in the general community, such as forced sterilisation, removing mobility aids, denying access to the community, denying access to advocacy, blocking the development of the person, denial of ‘capacity’, infanitlising and dehumanising the person, and processes and procedures to ‘normalise’ behaviours to name a few are not addressed in Royal Commissions into issues in the general community.

In the decade and a half since this paper was written and presented by Helen Meekosha at the Conference of the Asia Pacific Sociological Association in 2000, little has changed in the daily lives of people with disabilities. The paper states:

“At a micro level there are thousands of stories in a minor key, which reveal the exhausting struggle for simple services, self-respect and basic rights. A university leases a building for conferences, knowing it to be inaccessible and in breach of its own Access Plan. Taxi drivers abuse women whose physical appearance they find strange or threatening. Local neighbourhood residents take Apprehended Violence Orders (AVOs) against intellectually disabled people trying to live in ‘their’ community. Parents, especially mothers, lose custody battles simply on the basis of their impairment.”

These same battles continue today. In their everyday lives people with disability are treated as less than full citizens. They are ostracised, not counted and segregated in schools, universities, churches and in all sections of civic life. This separation between non-disabled and disabled people is a chasm so large it echoes the screams of the hundreds of thousands of disabled people who have suffered. Each turned head and averted eye digs the chasm deeper and wider.

We, as a nation, must review our thinking. We must review our attitudes and actions that enable and reinforce the abuse, neglect and violence against disabled people. In a paper presented to the Advancing Rehabilitation: Inaugural Conference, Melbourne, 4 November 1994 by Margaret Cooper and Dianne Temby for Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA). Copyright 1994 the authors note:

“A former Governor of Victoria, Sir Paul Hasluck (1975, p.7) in an address to fellows of the College of Nursing Australia, said: “A person or group who has already chosen a certain doctrine or ideology only looks for the facts that confirms a belief that is already formed”. His statement describes something of what happens when people refer to others negatively or stick labels on them; we look to confirm the label and often miss seeing the person.”

We must have a Royal Commission so that we, as a nation, can review what has happened in the past, how it happened, and look to understand exactly what must be done to ensure the end to violence, abuse and neglect against disabled people. It is only through the power of a Royal Commission that individuals, organisations and government departments can be forced to bring out into the light of day the files that are the stories of the abuse, assaults, neglect, manslaughter, deaths of disabled people who are all too often listed as numbers is the systems that imprisoned them and tortured them.

Our very national anthem asks us to “rejoice; for we are young and free”. We need to make this true for all Australians including the five million disabled Australians.