People with disabilities need royal commission



Last month, Parliament mandated a royal commission into the treatment of people with disabilities. Now, however, we are told that the government will not proceed before hearing from all the states and territories. It is disappointing, to say the least, that this opportunity is not being seized with both hands.

Woman with one blind eye (Getty Creative)No Territorian buy-in was required for the federal government, rocked by the horrific images from the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, to call a royal commission into conditions of detention there. Likewise, although much of the law governing trade unions and industrial relations more generally is made by states, rather than federally, the government did not wait for state approval here either before instituting a royal commission.

In many ways, people living with disabilities are the most in need of strong centralised protections. To some extent, this is already recognised by the fact that the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which has been inspiring in scope but less so in execution, is itself a federal project. Indeed, the New South Wales government cited the NDIS's existence as a federal safety net as a reason to cut advocacy services to people with a disability — leaving up to 90 per cent of the affected population without access to advocacy services when the cuts bite in 2020.

The federal government itself, while giving with one hand has been busily taking with the other. Agencies across the board advocating for people with disabilities and accessible transport have all been recent targets of cost-cutting measures while the spectacle of farmers being pitted against NDIS funding recipients in a sort of Hunger Games Down Under late last year was distinctly unedifying.

It may be argued that the money simply is not there (although, of course, we rarely hear these arguments when there are new arms to be bought, new powers to be given to the intelligence services or a new war to be fought). If one were to take this on face value, though, one would expect money to be flowing into places which would increase the productivity of society.

Yet it is not as though people with disabilities are being assisted with resources to be productive members of our business oriented society. School funding from the federal government for people with disabilities was cut by up to 46 per cent in some states, just last year.

For those who are able to look for work, the situation is also less than rosy. Funding for the Disability Employment Service, which helps people with an intellectual disability into work, was cut by a whopping 31 per cent last year. Even before these cuts, in 2015, Australia ranked 21 out of 29 in the OECD for employment of people with a disability with only 53 per cent of working aged persons with a disability being employed (as against 83 per cent of all working aged people) and disability featuring as the largest category of complaints of discrimination before the Australian Human Rights Commission.


"While it would be naïve to expect a royal commission into the treatment of persons with a disability to address all of these issues, the very fact of its existence is likely to bring the daily lives and experiences of those of us with a disability into the public eye."


Aside from the high level policy debates, however, there are as many unique experiences of the effects of living with a disability as there are people who experience it. While any of the most harrowing stories to come out of a future royal commission are likely to be individual accounts of abuse at the hands of (often highly trusted) institutions — just as was the case with the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Just as some people with a disability are highly articulate people well able to advocate for themselves, others are not. Some face the unique vulnerability of living in an institution without the resources to advocate for themselves. Abuse of people in these circumstances has reached 'epidemic' proportions, according to a 2015 Senate report, and cuts across institutions of all types — residential, educational, aged care, prisons, hospitals. Disability is often also a key factor in societal disadvantage — a fact highlighted in a major 2015 study, Dropping off the Edge, by Catholic Social Services Australia and Jesuit Social Services.

While it would be naïve to expect a royal commission into the treatment of persons with a disability to address all of these issues, especially against the background roar of misinformation which accompanies any election campaign, the very fact of its existence is likely to bring the daily lives and experiences of those of us with a disability into the public eye.

Even if none of its recommendations were ever implemented — an outcome which is not impossible given the difficulties in even getting the project off the ground in the first place — this would surely be no bad thing.



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: Getty Creative

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, disability



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Existing comments

Well said, Justin, and thank you for your advocacy. If cost is a problem, we could get the funds from a very short delay in the production of one new submarine, and no one would notice. But people with disability are suffering now.

Denis Fitzgerald | 07 March 2019  

Oh, Justin Glyn, you are lumbered with the curse of conscience and good intentions. I agree with you in every point you make but know that in modern democracies the purity of purpose envisioned by politicians over a hundred years ago has long been replaced by big business funding and political practicalities. It is immensely sad for greed seems to have won the day, at least for the foreseeable future. Unlike you, Justin, I am an atheist, so I don't have faith in any God riding in at some late hour like the Lone Ranger to sort out the mess. But I do have faith in humanity, although the game of brinkmanship we're playing with avarice and the environment could well see us all disappear.

Martin Killips | 07 March 2019  

Thank you Justin. It is not God who will ride in to save the day for people with disabilities. It is when you and I rise together and say ‘No more’. We are an impoverished society, a lesser, in effect, a dis-abled society in our attitude towards those who live with disabilities and in our refusal to engage with their systemic mistreatment, neglect and abuse. There needs to be a Royal Commission - now. No more excuses. No more prevarication. Now.

Fiona Winn | 08 March 2019  

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