TODAY is the first public sitting of the disability royal commission, or to give it its full name, the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.
This isn’t just another royal commission. It is the culmination of many years of work by disabled people to get recognition of the scale of violence against us.
Disabled Peoples Organisations Australia put together some of the known data and statistics about violence against us. What we know is shocking:
People with intellectual disability are 10 times more likely to experience violence than people without disability;
People with intellectual disability are three times more likely to be victims of assault, sexual assault and robbery compared with people who do not have an intellectual disability;
20 per cent of women with a disability report a history of unwanted sex compared with 8.2 per cent of women without disability.
But these statistics only tell part of the story. They can’t tell the story of what it is like to not be able to choose who you live with, or to not be paid properly for your work. To not be able to access the same services and facilities as everyone else, and to have little choice about what you do every day.
Statistics don’t tell the story of being ignored or treated as less than human because you are disabled.
Unearthing hidden violence
Violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability is rampant, and yet remains mostly hidden.
Disabled people routinely find that violence against them is covered up, not treated seriously or just ignored. This violence happens not just in the disability support system but also at school, at work, at home, in hospital and in the justice system.
This violence is everywhere in our lives, yet largely hidden from the view of non-disabled people, until this royal commission.
In 2014, a Four Corners episode focused on the abuse that people with disability experienced, and featured the bravery of Jules Anderson. Ms Anderson told Four Corners about the person, the monster, who hurt her.
She said: “I couldn’t speak to anyone because of fear of not being believed or the monster might take his threats… seriously, the threats he gave me.”
The inquiry report was clear and unambiguous when it reported back that the scale and extent of the violence against disabled people needed an urgent royal commission.
Another Four Corners episode in 2017 again heard courageous people with disability speaking out about the violence they had been living with.
This year, the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission reported more than 1,500 cases of abuse, just for those disabled people who are eligible for the NDIS, in only two states.
Why does this abuse happen?
The 2015 Senate inquiry said that “a root cause of violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability begins with the de-valuing of people with disability.” How people with disability are treated at work, at home, at school and in the community matters.
One in three disabled people have experienced discrimination in the last year, and 47 per cent of adults with disability have experienced violence, compared with 37 per cent of non-disabled people, according to a new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Witnesses are especially vulnerable
A royal commission has the power to investigate, to ask questions in a way that other inquiries don’t. This is particularly important for disabled people, as we often live in segregated environments, away from the public gaze.
The people with disability who will be telling the disability royal commission their stories will be taking risks that previous royal commissions haven’t had to deal with.
Many disabled people will want to share what has happened to them in their home, or with people who provide the essential supports they need.
This royal commission will have to make sure they can do this safely, without repercussions just for sharing their story.
Because we must share our stories, or we will never confront the reality of the violence we live with every day.
A long overdue reckoning
The royal commission must also look at the different lives of disabled people, and how the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality can all contribute to the violence against us, across multiple systems and services.
Damian Griffis, from First Peoples Disability Network told ABC RN that “we’re seeing an increasing criminalisation of disability … and there’s a number of examples that are showing that Aboriginal people with cognitive impairments being imprisoned, sometimes often indefinitely”.
This royal commission is a long overdue reckoning with how disabled people are treated in Australia, and with what needs to change.
This will be a time to listen to us tell our stories, and to we know needs to change to end the violence.
El Gibbs is a writer who focuses on disability and social issues, and a disabled person. She is also director of media and communications for advocacy group People with Disability Australia.
If you or anyone you know needs help
Lifeline 13 11 14
Mens Line 1300 789 978
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
1800 RESPECT 1800 737 732
National Disability Abuse and Neglect Hotline 1800 880 052
Aboriginal Family Domestic Violence Hotline 1800 019 123