Parliament has passed a motion supporting a royal commission into the disability service sector after repeated calls from experts and advocates. Once established, it is likely to have many similarities with the current aged care inquiry, writes Rosemary Kayess.
On Monday the House of Representatives of the Australian parliament passed a vote to establish a royal commission to inquire into violence and abuse of people with disability.
This follows repeated calls by the disability sector for a commission of inquiry and for the Labor opposition to commit to holding one if elected in the upcoming federal election.
The government has not committed to a time frame and has indicated that it is unlikely to be established in this term of government as they need to negotiate with the States.
The timing, while important, should not overshadow the importance of making sure that the Commission’s Terms of Reference are not rushed and framed to address the broad and complex nature of violence and abuse of people with disability.
There is a significant body of evidence of violence and abuse experienced by persons with disability across a range of life domains including the disability service sector.
The Australian Senate conducted a national inquiry into violence, abuse and neglect against people with disability in institutional and residential settings in 2015.
It found that violence and abuse against people with disability is an ‘epidemic’, and that it occurs in a range of settings including the disability and mental health service system, aged care, childcare, schools and educational settings, hospitals and prisons.
In 2017 in an open letter to the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, over 100 academics with a breadth of experience across disability research supported calls for a Royal Commission citing the Senate Committee report that made clear, that we don’t know the full extent of the problem.
Critically, the evidence we do have suggests that instances of violence and abuse against people with disability are routinely ignored or downplayed.
Violence and abuse is often conceptualised as service incidents, or a workplace issue to be dealt with administratively – as opposed to violence or a criminal matter.
Often normalised, the lack of response to many instances of violence and abuse suggests systemic failure across these systems.
Parallels to aged care royal commission
There are parallels also to the current Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and safety
Instances of violence and abuse are widely reported across the aged care system and highlight problems with congregate living and institutional settings.
The Aged Care Royal Commission Terms of Reference include looking at alternatives to congregate care and to look at the context of changing demographics and preferences, in particular people’s desire to remain living at home.
It also makes reference to ensuring choice, control and independence in relation to their care.
People with disability have the same preferences of the choice of independent living but there are limited affordable and accessible housing opportunities for them to live independently in the community.
A Royal Commission is well placed to examine the multiple forms and complex nature of violence and abuse of people with disability in Australia and examine current legislative, policy and service responses.
A critical role would be to examine the protections and responses that are afforded and to assess the adequacy of any avenues for recourse and mechanisms for reparations.
This will require a comprehensive analysis across systems.
As such the broad powers of a Royal Commission provide a framework for a comprehensive investigation into the various forms of violence across systems and domains.
Powers that allow it to compel witnesses, and to identity and refer any matters of criminal activity.
The important thing from here is that the terms of reference are wide enough to cover what the Senate inquiry found was an epidemic across a range of systems.
The Terms of Reference would need cover all the places where people with disability experience violence and abuse, including schools, prisons, homes, hospitals, mental health facilities along with all disability support institutions and organisations, not just in the disability service sector.
Rosemary Kayess is Interim Director and Director Engagement of the Disability Innovation Institute at UNSW.