Disability Royal Commissioners Call for End to Segregation of People with Disability – Their Message at the Closing of the Disability Royal Commission

By Catia Malaquias

The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People With Disability (Disability Royal Commission), after four and half years of hearings,  held its Ceremonial Closing on Friday 15 September 2023 – two weeks prior to the provision of its much anticipated Final Report to the Commonwealth Government.  If the speeches made by Commissioners at the Closing Ceremony reflect the substance of the coming recommendations to Government, the long wait for the final report will be worth it.

The most significant theme during the Closing Ceremony was not the near-universal –  and too often conveniently vaguely expressed – call for the greater inclusion of people with disability in all aspects of our society, but rather the power,  directness and clarity of the message that it is the continued segregation of people with disability in settings separate to their non-disabled peers that devalues and ‘others’ people with disability, and perpetuates the prejudicial attitudes and circumstances for violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability.

The Closing Ceremony emphasized that, to end such violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, the desegregation of people with disability in Australian society will require the phasing out and closure of:

  • “special schools” and other segregated education settings – in order for the mainstream education system to be transformed to provide genuinely inclusive education – a fundamental human right under Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities;
  • sheltered workshops or ADEs, with their sub-minimum wages – in favour of supported open employment; and
  • “group homes”, with their smaller scale but still very institutional character – in favour of living in the community with supports.

This message that ‘segregation must end’ was loudest from the Commissioners with disability, Commissioners Rhonda Galbally and Alastair McEwin, and Commissioner Barbara Bennett.  Their succinct and powerful speeches, in the order that they were given at the Closing Ceremony, are set out below.

Speeches – Closing Ceremony of the Disability Royal Commission

Commissioner Rhonda Galbally, 15 September 2023

“Thank you uncle Alan Madden for your warm welcome to your country, and I want to begin by acknowledging the disability rights movement in Australia.

I want to thank the advocates and disabled people’s organisations who fought so hard for so long to ensure that this disability royal commission was established.

Image of an older woman shown from the torso upwards. She has light skin and short grey-brown hair. She is speaking and looking to the side. She is wearing a blue v-neck top and behind her shoulders, two grey crutches are visible.And as one of two Commissioners with disability, I also particularly want to thank those disabled people, family members, friends and workers and advocates who so bravely came forward to tell us their stories.

I heard your pain, your rage, your hopelessness, deep sadness for lives lost.

I was frequently told about the tragedy of lost opportunities to lead full lives free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. I heard, and I learned.

So as we come to the end of the Commission, it’s salutary to remember what the disability rights movement began fighting for in Australia back at the beginning.

Fifty years ago, these pioneers fought to establish human rights for people with disabilities to be fully included in the community.  And without giving away their ages, I’d like to thank Maurice Corcoran and Lorna Hallahan as senior advisors to the Royal Commission, and people who were around at the beginning.

Fifty years ago, these groups successfully fought for the closing down of institutions. But as a Commissioner I have learned that while these institutions became group homes, many replicated institutional cultures, including restrictive practices.

Fifty years ago the groups fought to close down sheltered workshops. While the names of the workshops changed to “Australian Disability Enterprises”, I have learned that wages and conditions remain much the same.

Fifty years ago they fought to integrate disabled children into mainstream schools and for special schools to fully support integration and become resource centres.  Instead, I have learned, that now, many mainstream schools are rejecting children with disabilities and pushing them to a growing number of special schools.

As a Commissioner, I have learned that keeping people with disabilities segregated “with their own kind”, has proven to be a very difficult ship to turn around. I have been told that mainstream systems and settings are not inclusive and continue to reject children and adults with disabilities.

But I have also been told that there is fear. Fear that disability is contaminating, infecting the lives of the non-disabled community with sights, sounds, behaviours that might disturb and interfere with non-disabled lives.

For example, I have been told that there is fear that having disabled students in mainstream classrooms will be detrimental to the education of non-disabled students and use up too much teacher attention and school resources.

Yet research presented to the Commission shows that this fear does not have any legitimate basis.

I have heard that fear arises when non-disabled people do not have a strong relationship with disabled people, and that this fear can turn into loathing of disability and seeing disabled people as ‘other’.  I have learned that loathing from fear can then turn into violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disabilities and that this is further reinforced by the practice of keeping disabled people “out of sight and out of mind”, often claiming it’s for their protection, thus enabling the fear, loathing and discrimination to continue.

I have learned that this is a vicious and insidious cycle creating prejudice in our communities. We have been told that what is needed to stop the prejudice is attitudinal change. Yet the research presented to the Commission shows that attitudinal change campaigns, with advertisements exhorting the community to include disabled people, that that’s not enough because the prejudice is too strong.

As a Commissioner I have learned that attitudes change when people with every kind and severity of disability are visible, present and meaningfully participating with non-disabled children and adults, on a day-to-day basis, in every setting in the community, starting with the earliest years.

And I have learned that everyone relating together, disabled and non-disabled, as classmates, neighbours, co-workers, friends and acquaintances, they become a growing group of informal and effective watchdogs calling out violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation because it is visible.

So my hope as a Commissioner is that the voices of disabled people and their allies, will go on to act as the catalyst. They are the necessary catalyst for the transformative actions that are needed for governments and the community to build a truly inclusive Australia.”

You can download Commissioner Galbally’s speech in PDF format here.

Commissioner Barbara Bennett, 15 September 2023

“Hi, I want to start by acknowledging my fellow Commissioners, and to particularly thank Commissioners Galbally and McEwin as the Commissioners with disability.  They were so generous in sharing their insights and lived experience. I learned a lot from them.

A photo of a middle aged woman with light skin and blond mid-shoulder length straight hair. She is wearing dark framed glasses and a silver jacket over a black and pink top. She is speaking and looking to the her left side.I also wish to particularly acknowledge and thank the people with disability who gave so much to this Royal Commission.  They had the courage and the strength to share with us their experience, often shocking and deeply personal.  They came with suggestions and recommendations of what needs to be changed, and how to make those changes, with many saying “it may be too late for me but I want a better future for the next generation”.

These people gave practical meaning to “nothing about us without us”.  Their message was clear: the only path to change is to give due weight to the voices and perspectives of people with disability and their organisations.

I want to talk specifically about group homes throughout our hearing.

We heard that people with disability living in group homes are at significant risk of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. We heard that many group homes have failed to keep people with disability safe, they failed to empower people with disability to have choice and control over their lives and they lack opportunities for people to develop and participate in their communities.

Group homes have failed to realise the rights of people with disability under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability.  To quote from a submission we received from a person with disability: “a good life includes being able to make decisions about your own life. That means where you live and who you live with, and who can come into your house”.

These people said group homes are not ‘homes’ in the sense that the general community would accept. In describing of incidents of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability in group homes, one witness said it occurs almost as part of day-to-day practices in these environments – that it was pervasive.

In 2022, the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission conducted an own motion inquiry into aspects of supported accommodation.  It cited thousands of incidents of serious injury, of abuse and neglect of people with disability.  It reported incidents of unlawful sexual conduct, and incidents of death.

Before group homes came to be the dominant form of housing support for people with disability, many lived in residential centres, some of which housed hundreds of people. We have heard, that regardless of the smallest scale of group homes, they are in fact still “mini institutions” and fail on many accounts, to deliver the quality of life that had been expected in these small group dwellings.

We heard that one rationale for the group home model is “economies of scale”. That it’s cheaper to provide support to five or six residents, requiring one or two staff members for everyone. This can lead to standardisation of care, designed to meet the preferences of staff rather than residents, and can result in neglect of individual care needs in favour of efficiency.

We were told some group homes develop “punitive cultures” towards residents. A witness described a “punishment chart” which recorded when her daughter had not behaved according to the rules. If her daughter didn’t behave in the morning, the staff on that shift would apply a consequence. If her daughter responded to this punishment, this would cause another “behaviour” and another “consequence”, and so on.  It was cumulative and by the end of the day, we were told she was defeated.

We were told that it was important for people with disability to be able to access all aspects of the broader community, to be able to build trusting relationships with a variety of people, not to have relationships limited largely to support workers and co-residents. We were told that access to the community at large reduces the risks for exploitation, violence and abuse.

On a positive note we heard that there are some emerging innovate models that can provide options for people with disability that better support their human rights and dignity. For example, we heard about the “10+1 housing model” developed by the Summer Foundation. This model involves purchasing 10 apartments in a large development located near accessible transport and other community amenities and redesigning them for accessibility. Under this model, people with disability live in their own home and have their own planned supports.

We heard about the Community Living Initiative (CLI) in Cairns. This is Australia’s first purpose-built housing complex for First Nations people with disability. The intention of the initiative is to strengthen culturally safe supports and services to enable people to move back home to Country or to other homes of choice. We were told that: “At its heart, the intent is to provide a place of identity, belonging and healing, led by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people”.

I would like to conclude with the words from someone who attended a private session. She told about having lived in a group home since she was 18, and that residents had to get up at the same time, and go to bed at the same time. All the doors were locked, residents could not go out when they wanted to, they could not choose what they wanted to eat or when they had their meals. If they didn’t do what they were told, they were locked up. She said it was like a prison.

I believe we can do so much better that this. Thank you.”

You can download Commissioner Bennett’s speech in PDF format here.

Commissioner Alastair McEwin, 15 September 2023

“Thank you Chair.

Photo of a man with dark hair and light skin. He is wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie. He is wearing glasses. He is communicating in sign language. There is an inset box to his right that shows an Auslan interpreter. Closed captions appear at the bottom of the frame with the words "My hope, as a disabled person is that in the near future, every mainstream school welcomes all children."Education was a very big topic at this Royal Commission.  This is not surprising as many people told us that the human right to education is foundational to all other human rights.

Disabled people, their families, advocates, academics and others told us that education is “the start” and is a precursor to all people being included in all aspects of mainstream society: schools, workplaces, homes and community.

Parents of disabled children told this Royal Commission that they have the same aspirations for their children, just like other parents.  One parent told us: “School is about maximising their potential. every child has a right to that.”

A re-occurring theme, particularly in the many private sessions I did, was the failure of the mainstream education system to include disabled children in their schools.  I never had a parent tell me that they wanted their child to go to a “special” school.  They told me repeatedly of their attempts to work with their local mainstream school to include their disabled child in the classroom and the school community.

I lost count of the many practical and easy solutions these families tried to implement with their local school, and the structural and attitudinal barriers they continued to face.

Many students and families gave up and felt they had no other choice than to go to a “special” school. A young advocate told us in a public hearing that mainstream schools are so inaccessible and so wrought with bullying that “it doesn’t feel like a choice anymore”.

We saw and read about ‘gate-keeping’, where teachers and principals told disabled children and their families that the local school couldn’t enrol them and that they would be better off going to a “special school”.

One disabled child and his family were told by a school that he would “slow down the class”.

We were told of the many different ways in which disabled students are pushed out of mainstream classroom, into segregated settings. And yet this is often referred to as “choosing” those settings.

We were also told about the low or no expectations of disabled children to learn and develop.  There were many accounts of disabled children experiencing severe neglect in their education and social development.

In addition to the core right to education, we saw and read about the right for disabled children to have access to their linguistic and cultural identities.  The Deaf community told this Royal Commission of the importance of Deaf children receiving their education in sign language.  They told us of the negative and devastating life-long impacts of language deprivation.

We also were also told by First Nations people with disability of the importance of having their cultural rights recognised.  They told us this can be achieved by having First Nations disabled and non-disabled children learning together in a culturally appropriate way.

Thousands of people, whether in public hearings, submissions or private sessions were very clear on what needs to change.  That mainstream schools need to be inclusive of all children.

Inclusive education gives all children the opportunity to develop understanding, knowledge and empathy of each other.  This leads to a greater acceptance of disability as part of the diversity of society.

We saw and read, that for inclusive education to work no child should be turned away from a mainstream school and that solutions for inclusion should be found.

Many solutions for inclusive education were provided to this Royal Commission, solutions which have already been implemented in some schools in Australia with success.

Just three of these simple yet powerful solutions are:

  • a fully inclusive school in Townsville, where no child was turned away on the basis of disability, regardless of support needs;
  • an autism coach in every primary school in South Australia, to support teachers to ensure their practices are inclusive; and
  • the Queensland government’s education policy which references the principles of Inclusive Education articulated by Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability and General Comment No.4.

The reform agenda for governments to implement inclusive education needs to be true to the non-segregationist spirit and intent of the Convention.  That is, mainstream education settings are to be inclusive of all children and the default placement for them.

The reform agenda for mainstream schools to be inclusive should, at its core, be about learning and development for all children.  The agenda is therefore not solely about disability – it is about universal design and access, for all.

In bringing this to an end, I say two things.

First, I thank each person who provided their experiences and information to the Royal Commission.  Your contributions have been invaluable to our work.

Second and finally, I have a vision of Australia having a fully inclusive education system, where there is only one education setting with no dual and segregated settings of mainstream and special schools.

[interrupted by spontaneous applause from the crowd.]

Just one thing if I may … I saw and felt the pain of thousands of missed opportunities for disabled children who were, and continue to be, excluded from learning with their non-disabled peers.  And I saw and felt the pain of these children and their families who had tried so hard to be included in the mainstream system, only to be dismissed and excluded by that system that did not welcome them.

My hope as a disabled person, is that in the near future every mainstream school welcomes all children, disabled and non-disabled.  It is my hope that every mainstream school provides learning and development for each individual child.  Until this happens, we will never achieve a fully inclusive society that embraces disability as part of the diversity of our community.”

You can download Commissioner McEwin’s speech in PDF format here.

The day before the Closing Ceremony of the Disability Royal Commission, People With Disability Australia, the peak national disabled person’s organisation, issued a media release titled “PWDA Calls for Radical Response to End the Segregation and Discrimination of People with Disability”, ahead of the release of the Disability Royal Commission’s final report in late September. It followed from the Position Paper issued in September 2020 by peak disabled persons and disability advocacy organisations and endorsed by over 50 other organisation, titled “Segregation of People With Disability is Discrimination and Must End”.  Join their call on social media with the hashtags #EndSegregation and #DisabilityRC
[Cover photo © Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People With Disability.  ALT: Photo shows a large conference room, with people seated on either side of a pathway.  Large purple chandeliers adorn the ceilings.  A media camera operator is visible closest to the front.  At the very back you can see a bench covered in a white table cloth with people seated along it and facing the audience – they are the Commissioners.]

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