Royal Commission into Disability? It’s just a matter of time.

Recent events indicating potential fraud of the NDIS by a Melbourne man remind us there are many issues involving abuse, harm and neglect involving people with a disability.

As the NDIS picks up pace, and more people with disability are provided with control and choice and the means to purchase services and supports, it is likely more issues like this will surface.

While the NDIS Fraud Taskforce appears to have done well, there are a myriad of concerns about past and future possibilities involving harm of people with disability.

Royal Commissions seem to be the flavour of the day, particularly when it comes to finding ways to deliver to justice to victims for past events where other forms of redress have not been available.

In recent times there have been Royal Commissions into sexual abuse by the Church, financial abuse by the Banking sector, Family Violence (Victoria), and now the Aged Care Royal Commission.

The crossover of organisations and staff working in both the aged care and the disability sectors is something that should also cause pause for reflection. And the past block funding arrangements of disability providers left much to the imagination, as far as accountability and use of public funding.

There have been plenty of inquiries into disability, and the shocking instances of abuse which abound.

In 2015, a survey of disability workers in Victoria and Tasmania found that nearly half of all Victoria’s disability sector employees have witnessed their co-workers perpetrate acts of abuse, violence or neglect on people with disabilities living in their care.

The 2016 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, found more than 70 per cent of women with disabilities have experienced violence or sexual abuse at some point in their lives.

A Four Corners investigation in March 2017 into prominent disability services revealed a series of deaths and alarming accounts of abuse and neglect of people with disability. But no Royal Commission was instigated.

The 2015 inquiry into abuse in disability services (Victoria) reported that disability reporting was not fit for purpose, either in its primary aim of learning and prevention, or its secondary aim of ensuring ‘client safety and wellbeing’. It also reported the Ombudsman’s finding the disability sector was dominated by ‘a culture of fear’ that drives the under reporting of abuse.

The 2012 report on disability services by the Department of Social Services called Shut Out, focussing on exclusion, disadvantage and discrimination faced by people with disability raised issues of abuse of children with disabilities in institutional settings including respite services, and pointed out that as support workers often work alone, there remains significant risk of abuse and neglect.

There is also the matter of the ongoing harm of people with disability in relation to the Justice system, including inappropriate incarceration of people with disability with no other accommodation alternatives provided to them.

You may recall also in 2016 the cases of children with disability being maltreated within the education sector, including being locked in cages.

The list of evidence is endless.

All these examples have many things in common, including cases where people with disability have been the subject of horrific abuse and neglect — physical, sexual, financial. And the abuse is perpetrated and enabled by systems, institutions, regulators, providers, workers, family members and people with disability themselves.

Royal Commissions also provide:

· vivid content for a media pack that thrives on sordid tales of shocking, unspeakable violence and abuse,

· a menu for the public to reel in horror as they count themselves lucky that, but for the grace of god, they may go there.

So, is a Royal Commission into disability:

· Justified? Well, if you asked more than 160 community groups, including St Vincent de Paul and Anglicare and more than 100 academics who have been asking for over a year, you would get an emphatic ‘Yes’

· Going to tell us something we don’t already know? Simply think about what has transpired during the Banking Royal Commission. We all knew something was wrong, but did we know how wrong it was? Royal Commissions are particular beasts that have the means to uncover rather more detail and truth than traditional methods of discovery.

· Going to provide basis for changes that have not already long been flagged? Some argue that the NDIA and the Disability Commission are designing a new system that will have adequate safeguards in place. Many of the horrors are known, and part of the issue of complexity of NDIS rests in the necessary protections to avoid abuse and neglect of people with disability. For me, the jury is out. But I’m not sure any future system, no matter how good it is, will provide restorative justice for those who have been abused or even killed, in the past. If it held individuals, organisations and systems accountable for past injustices then maybe a Royal Commission is justified.

· Going to be good for people with disability in a practical and symbolic way? There is no doubt in my mind that any Royal Commission into Disability would invariably horrify and appal the majority of Australians. Would they feel cheated or marginalised? Would they want to continue to support the disability sector to the tune of $22 billion every year? Would the inevitable pain and humiliation for the disability sector be able to be overcome in the ensuing years?

· Unfairly impact providers who have been doing the right thing? Probably. Is it a fare worth paying? Probably.

· Going to make things better or worse? It’s hard to think how it could possibly be any worse.

Over the past month we have heard:

· Federal Senator Jordon Steele-John detailed the deaths of people from severe neglect by their carers, others who had been killed by loved ones in ‘mercy killings’ to end their suffering, and people who had died in group care homes after sexual assaults and other forms of serious physical violence.

· Shocking audio recordings of abuse by carers on people with disability.

· Continued calls from the disability sector for a Royal Commission.

So where do the political parties line up when it comes to having a Royal Commission into Disability?

· The Coalition has rejected calls from the sector for a separate inquiry, but has included younger people with disability in residential care within the terms of the Aged Care Royal Commission.

· The Greens support a Royal Commission into disability.

· The ALP in May 2017 vowed to establish a royal commission on violence and abuse against people with disabilities, and make it a priority if elected.

It seems a Royal Commission into Disability is just a matter of time.