Disability report must be a horizon, not a history of brutality

Instances of children being removed from their mothers immediately after birth, forced sterilisations and people with disability being physically tortured by those paid to care for them.

It sounds like a horror story from the distant past, but these are just some of the nearly 10,000 individual stories Australians shared with the disability royal commission over the past four and a half years. The Royal Commission’s final report was handed to the Commonwealth Government late last week.

One of the harrowing stories shared in the report came from Rebecca, who was abused by other residents in a group home in Melbourne, including once being dragged across the ground by her hair, with the injuries she sustained later becoming infected.

Rebecca’s mother, Catherine, said: “Conflict and even violence in the Melbourne house had somehow become normal and had been accepted as a fact of life”.

Another story shared came from a young boy called Quaden, a nine-year-old with dwarfism. Quaden told of relentless bullying at school and having social anxiety so severe he didn’t want to leave the house because he was stared at.

After sharing his story, Quaden had one clear message for the Royal Commission to share with Australia: “Just be kind”.

As a parliamentarian and as a father, listening to Rebecca and Quaden’s experiences broke my heart. As did many of the stories we heard at the royal commission.

In the final report, the seven commissioners, led by chair Ronald Sackville KC and commissioners Barbara Bennett PSM, Rhonda Galbally AC, Andrea Mason OAM, Alastair McEwin, John Ryan and Roslyn Atkinson AO, made 222 recommendations, a significant number of them to the Federal Government.

Put simply, the report said too many people with disability were still being let down by all levels of government and all parts of society.

It is all our job in government to ensure the final report is not a history book of sad, brutal experiences; it must be a horizon — a horizon for what kind of Australia we want to reach.

To those who shared your stories with the Royal Commission, I know the process can be re-traumatising but I want you to know that your honesty should not be in vain.

The Albanese Labor Government immediately established a Commonwealth disability royal commission taskforce to coordinate our response.

My colleague and Minister for Social Services, Amanda Rishworth, will do an excellent job taking the lead on this.

For my role as Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, 42 of the commission’s recommendations targeted the scheme’s watchdog, the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission.

I make no effort to sugarcoat things — this was not news I was surprised to receive. After a decade of Liberal mismanagement, safety in the NDIS is not to a consistent standard and people with disability are suffering because of it.

To keep participants safe, since coming into Government we’ve doubled funding for the NDIS watchdog, tripled its staff, and have seen compliance crackdowns increase tenfold in just one year. Much more will be done as the NDIS review is finalised at the end of the month; they’ll be considering advice from the Royal Commission too.

Of the commission’s recommendations, 122 include the States and Territories. They’ll be looking at them carefully.

The disability royal commission has highlighted that abuse often occurs in segregated parts of society, left unaccountable in the day-to-day, for example in workplaces or group homes.

It also talks about schooling options for children with disability. An important topic for us to discuss as a society.

Now don’t get me wrong, many special schools, disability-tailored workplaces and group homes provide integral and specialist care, but we have to work towards more inclusion into mainstream systems and provide more oversight.

The idea of having an inclusive education system is a goal everyone shares, from disability rights activists to parents of kids in the school system now. But you can’t just click your fingers and make things happen.

People with disability and their parents also need more choices not less. For me, it is not chasing one option but rather doing better to include kids in the mainstream.

Also of deep concern, from the royal commission we’ve learnt that 55 per cent of people with disability between 18 and 64 have been physically or sexually abused and 47 per cent of adults with a disability are excluded from the workforce.

There is a lot to do, but we will do it. Progress and caring for our most vulnerable is what Labor governments do.

But something I want all of you reading to consider is the following words of chair Ronald Sackville: “Transformational reforms cannot occur without fundamental changes in community attitudes towards people with disability”.

With 4.4 million Aussies living with disability, all of us know someone who is disabled or cares for someone disabled. It is the responsibility of every single one of us to make sure people with disability live with respect and are included.

Like young Quaden says, “just be kind”.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Friday 6 October 2023.