Disability Royal Commission report – Interview with Rosemary Kayess on ABC Sunday Extra

Disability Royal Commission report

The Final Report of the four year Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has been released.

Julian Morrow of ABC radio’s Sunday Extra program, spoke to Rosemary Kayess on 1 October 2023.  You can access the audio here and the interview transcript is as follows.

Julian Morrow:  The Royal Commission into Violence Abuse Neglect and Exploitation of People With Disability has published its Report.  It is the culmination of 4.5 years of hearings, submissions and often harrowing testimony by people with disabilities and their loved ones. In 12 volumes, the Report contains 221 recommendations for achieving the Royal Commission’s vision for an inclusive Australia, where people with disability live, work, learn, play create and engage together with people without disability in safe and diverse communities, where those people have the power of choice and independence and dignity to take risks, can make significant contributions to communities that value their presence and treat them with respect and are culturally safe.

It’s a mammoth piece of work, the Royal Commission Report, and the Federal government has announced a Taskforce to respond to that Report. Before we discuss the Report with our guest today, I thought we would start with some audio from the Final Ceremonial Hearing of the Disability Royal Commission, at which poet Andy Jackson read an original poem which he composed to honour the courage and insight of those who testified to the Commission.  Here are some excerpts of that work, titled “Listen”:

Andy Jackson:

“Enough of blunt, stretched out hours, without touch or an ear. Enough with the walls of clinics, which absorb cries of pain but do nothing about it. Enough with the slurs and insults then telling us we’re too sensitive, and enough with the closed doors adorned with diversity and inclusion statements.  Enough of testimonies gathering dust, while the media moves on.  We are not victims of our own bodies, we are survivors of how you treat us.  This time let your discomfort mean something.  This cannot be the end of listening, but the beginning, so we might be able to rest, breathe, nourished on this broken luminous path we make as we walk forward or crawl or wheel, weary and determined, carried and carrying each other.”

Julian Morrow:  That’s poet to Andy Jackson reading his original work “Listen” … “not victims of our own bodies survivors of how you treat us”. His poem in testament to the witnesses at the Disability Royal Commission. Our guest this morning to discuss the Royal Commission’s Report is human rights lawyer, researcher and academic, Rosemary Kayess, the Vice Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Rosemary’s also the Chair of the Australian Centre for Disability Law and was the 2019 recipient of the Australian Human Rights Medal.  Welcome to Sunday Extra.

Rosemary Kayess: Hi, Julian thank you very much for having me.

Julian Morrow:  Rosemary, a key theme in the Royal Commission’s Report is the role of segregation and exclusion in the poor outcomes and experiences that people with a disability in Australia have experienced.  The Commissioners recommended phasing out segregated education and so-called Special Schools by 2051, segregated employment by 2034 and Group Homes by 2038, although the Commissioners were split on the details of those recommendations.  Could you talk to us about the reality of segregation for people living with a disability in Australia and why it’s such a key point recommendation and theme of the Royal Commission’s Report.

Rosemary Kayess: Segregation is behind the goal of the recognition of the human rights of people with disability.  For the last 50 years it’s been an essential part of that platform. The reason segregation is such a critical issue is because what happens is people with disability get pathologized and they get siloed off into segregated settings that ultimately are closed environments. And it’s those closed environments and that social isolation that leads to the violence and abuse that they experience. So one of the clear things that has come out of the Report and which has been known in the in the area of disability for a long time, is that segregation is a driver of violence, abuse and exploitation and neglect, and if there’s anything that’s glaring in the Report it’s that, yes they see that as a driver, but still we can’t get a unanimous decision to recognise segregation, which is a fundamental principle in international law, as discrimination.  I mean it’s a prima facie point that it is discriminatory to segregate people based on personal characteristics.  We can go back to the foundational doctrine of Brown v The Board of Education in the US Supreme Court now, that is still held up to say “separate but equal” is discrimination.

Julian Morrow:  We’ve heard your sense of disappointment at the lack of unanimity on that point.  The Royal Commission’s Report is a huge piece of work, as I said 12 volumes. Rosemary could you give us your impressions of the things that most strike you of what you’ve been able to absorb of the Report so far.

Rosemary Kayess: Well there’s a couple of … I mean this is what Andy spoke to, the strength and the power people with disabilities, their testimonies, their evidence that they gave, the evidence that’s contained in the Report. And I mean, I will admit, I won’t lie to you, I have not finished it from volume to volume [laughter]. The power of people with disability …  it just goes to to demonstrate the people with disability aren’t necessarily inherently vulnerable, what they require is their rights to be respected. And so it’s the situations that they get put in that leave them vulnerable and in need of protection, ok? The other thing is that they now still have to fight for their rights because of those split situations with segregation. I mean my heart as a lawyer would say, you know the majority should pave the way, but then we’ve got this middle decision from commissioner Mason which I really don’t understand where she’s coming from. And I have to also admit that I haven’t spoken to the Commissioners. I’m not really certain of their time frames, how they understand those time frames to be legitimate time frames.  There are elements of progressive realisation in terms of economic, social and cultural rights in meeting our human rights obligations internationally but not all of those elements need to be progressively realised.  Some of them are immediate obligations so the timing, I really don’t understand, but what is clear is Australia has to start taking steps now.  I mean one of the commissioners was instrumental in starting Group Homes here in New South Wales so he knows how long we have known about the situation. You know, it beggars belief that we’ve had 20-30 years of knowing about this and we still haven’t moved. We’ve had to let another generation or two go through the segregation, the violence and abuse, to get the Royal Commission.  So there’s a few seeds within this Report which I think are very good. I think they need a bit of tweaking, I think we need to address segregation across the board. If we’re going to recognise the importance of intersectionality, we need to do it across the legislative framework as well. So they call for a Disability Rights Act and they call for a Disability Commission … there’s lots of those elements that could be incorporated into the proposal that the Human Rights Commission put to Parliament and there’s a Parliamentary inquiry at the moment for a Human Rights Act in Australia.  We would like to see some of these things happening much quicker than perhaps indicated by the Commission report

Julian Morrow:  Could I just get back to that point you just made about the recommendation for a Disability Rights Act. How would that be different from the current legislative framework for people with disabilities in Australia?

Rosemary Kayess: It’s about incorporating international law into Australia’s domestic legislation but you would get that with a Human Rights Act. Not all of what they’re proposing in a Disability Rights Act, but there are, you know, there are avenues that are inclusive avenues by which to do that. A Human Rights Act, I think, is the best way to pick it up. It’s a way of dealing with our siloed discrimination,  or part of an overall Human Rights Act rather than a specific Disability Rights Act. Yeah, I mean that way we can deal with intersectionality a lot better. It brings in the whole suite of core international human rights instruments and we’ve got an established Commission.  The Commission may need to be resourced and there may have to be amendments to some pieces of legislation, the Australian Human Rights Commission Act. But I think if we established international monitoring mechanism and that could pick up some of the other elements of oversight and, you know, actions of public authorities. So I think we’ve got mechanisms where you can have a much less siloed approach because that’s just reinforcing the notion of segregation and not dealing with intersectionality well at all.

Julian Morrow:  Thanks so much for speaking with us on Sunday Extra and good luck with absorbing the rest of that massive Report. I will obviously look forward to seeing how much of those changes come and the crucial issue that you’ve highlighted this morning, the pace at which that change happens.

Rosemary Kayess: Thanks Julian I’ve got my public holidays sorted.

Julian Morrow:  Absolutely. That was Rosemary Kayess who won’t be relaxing on the public holiday. Rosemary’s a human rights lawyer, researcher in academic and as well as elected as the Vice Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities and in 2019 Rosemary was awarded by the Human Rights Commission’s Australian human rights medal.

[Cover photo ©ABC.  ALT: Photo shows the headshot of a woman with jaw-length wavy blond hair and light skin. She is smiling, wearing a cream coloured top.  She is against a light blue backdrop.]

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