Disability royal commission calls for legal overhaul, but split over segregation

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The disability royal commission has called for a major legal overhaul to protect the rights of 4.4 million Australians with disabilities, including a new Australian Disability Rights Act and the prohibition of involuntary sterilisation and certain restrictive practices such as the seclusion of children in schools or youth prisons.

But after 4½ years of hearings, the six commissioners have split over the key question of segregation and whether special schools, group homes and disability enterprises – formerly known as sheltered workshops – should be permanently phased out.

Disability royal commission chair Ronald Sackville (right) and commissioners (l-r) John Ryan, Alastair McEwin, Andrea Mason, Dr Rhonda Galbally, Barbara Bennett hand their final report to Governor-General David Hurley (second from right) on Thursday.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

The federal government on Friday tabled the 12-volume final report of the $599 million Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, which has made 222 recommendations across a swathe of areas including health services, education, employment, criminal justice, guardianship and regulatory regimes for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

“This may seem to be a large number [of recommendations], but it reflects the very many settings and contexts in which violence against, and abuse, neglect and exploitation of, people with disability take place,” chair Ronald Sackville said in his foreword.

“We have identified numerous policy issues that must be addressed by governments, institutions and the community as a whole.”

These include major reform of mainstream education, employment and housing systems. The commissioners said schools needed to provide more support for children with a disability, the open labour market should be more accessible, and there should be a greater range of accommodation available for people with a disability.

Specifically, governments needed to develop a “national roadmap to inclusive education” that outlined targets for students with a disability; people working in disability enterprises should be paid at least 50 per cent of the minimum wage, moving to the full minimum wage by 2034; and there should be more support for people with a disability to live in individualised housing rather than group homes.

But there was dissent over the philosophical question of segregation and whether specialised settings should be phased out over time.

Commissioners Barbara Bennett, Dr Rhonda Galbally and Alastair McEwin said the deliberate and systemic separation of people based on disability constituted segregation and was incompatible with inclusion.

“[They] believe it is unconscionable that segregation on the basis of disability remains a policy default in Australia in the 21st century,” the report said.

“They consider special/segregated schools, [Australian Disability Enterprises] and group homes and similar accommodation should be phased out over a period of time.”

Sackville and commissioner John Ryan, however, said separation on the basis of disability for certain purposes did not need to involve people with a disability being isolated from their peers or the general community.

“The choices are not between wholly separated and wholly inclusive settings but are more nuanced, requiring consideration of the specific circumstances in which the physical separation of people with disability takes place,” according to their view.

Commissioner Andrea Mason advocated considering the issue on a case-by-case basis.

However, the commissioners agreed on the majority of the recommendations. They said an Australian Disability Rights Act should clearly articulate the rights of people with a disability and ensure there were effective remedies when those rights were breached. A new independent statutory body, the National Disability Commission should monitor outcomes for people with a disability.

States and territories should make laws to reduce the use of restrictive practices – such as chemical restraints and seclusion – with the aim of eliminating them from health services, schools and prisons. The non-therapeutic sterilisation of women and girls with a disability should be banned under law, unless there was a threat to the person’s life or they had given their free and informed consent.

The royal commission also focused on the criminal justice system, where it said people with a disability were significantly overrepresented, including in the youth justice system.

“Children with disability in youth detention have complex needs and are likely to have experienced multiple trauma,” the report said.

“The overrepresentation of First Nations people with cognitive disability in custody, particularly in youth detention, is a largely hidden national crisis.”

The commissioners said solitary confinement of children – which involves locking them in cells for 22 hours or more each day – had been used in most state and territory juvenile detention centres and must be prohibited. They also backed raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 nationwide.

During the commission’s final hearing earlier this month, Sackville said significant change would depend upon “the responses of government, of businesses and, equally important, the wider Australian community”.

“The abuses exposed by the royal commission demand an urgent and comprehensive response from all Australian governments. I cannot claim that the final report covers every conceivable issue,” he said. “But we have attempted to provide a blueprint across a range of areas.”

Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth and NDIS Minister Bill Shorten will address the report in a press conference later on Friday.

Over 154 days of hearings, the commission heard of sickening incidents of violence and appalling conditions in group homes, the widespread exclusion of children with disabilities in the school system, the glacial COVID-19 vaccine rollout for people living in disability homes, and the abysmal employment rate of people with a disability.

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