The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has shared its final report. In this series, we unpack what the commission’s 222 recommendations could mean for a more inclusive Australia.
The final report of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability follows years of advocacy from the disability community. It gave voice to people with disability to tell their stories of violence, so policymakers and broader community would listen and take action. Segregation emerged as a key driver of violence.
The report makes 222 recommendations to improve laws, policies and practices for a more just and inclusive society. They include a new disability rights act, including access to remedies when people experience human rights breaches.
The final report recommends disability service providers offer redress to people with disability who experience harm while receiving their services. This could include “apologies, compensation, reimbursement of fees, credits for services and other practical remedies or supports”.
However, there are no recommendations that governments should also offer apologies or redress. In addition, a call for governments and disability services to look back and repair the harm caused by century-long policies of segregation and institutionalisation is missing from the final report.
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What do ‘institutionalisation’ and ‘segregation’ mean?
Institutionalisation involves grouping people with disability together – such as in residential, educational or work settings – and segregating them (keeping them separate) from people without disability.
All people with disability have the human right to live independently in the community regardless of how high their support needs are. This means providing access to services and support so people with disability can exercise choice and control over their lives and make all decisions concerning their lives.
In 20th century Australia, people with disability were institutionalised in many large residential settings. They were subjected to
- physical and sexual violence
- medical neglect
- use of restrictive practices (such as sedation, locking people in a room or restraining them in a bed or chair)
- sterilisation (such as women having their tubes tied)
- and unpaid work.
Eventually, Australian government policies prompted the gradual closure of many large residential settings.
Shutting down institutions has not put an end to injustices. Follow-up processes have not been established to recognise and redress the experiences of people who lived there.
This institutional history intersects with Australia’s violence towards First Nations people with disability and with broader practices of eugenics (discriminatory “planned breeding”).
People with disability remain traumatised by their experiences, yet governments and charities have not been called to account.
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Today, many people – especially those with intellectual disability – live in group homes where segregation, social isolation, violence and lack of choice in their daily lives are a common reality.
Harms such as sterilisation, restrictive practices and below-minimum wages continue.
The disability royal commission heard how group homes replicate the harm of large residential settings, with operators failing to prevent violence and avoiding accountability.
People with disability have called for an end to segregation in housing and other aspects of their lives.
People with disabilities in group homes are suffering shocking abuse. New housing models could prevent harm
Reparations are actions to recognise and respond to systemic wrongs. They might involve compensation, restitution (such as returning money or property) or rehabilitation (health or legal services). Reparations can seek satisfaction (with apologies and memorials) and guarantees something won’t happen again via law reform or human rights education.
In Australia, we’ve seen compensation, rehabilitation and apologies for institutional child sexual abuse.
We have also seen reparations and an apology for members of the Stolen Generations.
People with disability are entitled to reparations as a human right, including for institutionalisation.
There are overseas examples of reparations for people with disability, including compensation for sterilisation, apologies for disability institutionalisation, public education and truth-telling.
What do people with disability want?
Co-author Jack Kelly describes the ongoing effects of institutionalisation:
People with disability were not seen as part of local communities when they lived in institutions. This has to change and still takes time. I think it is really important that we address the history of what has been going on and say; ‘Sorry that we didn’t look after your loved ones’ and ‘Sorry we didn’t value you as a person’. It is time to work with people with disability towards a national apology from the government.
Jack’s statement resonates with broader calls by the disability community for reparations.
In 2021, the Council for Intellectual Disability demanded withdrawal of an application for tourist re-zoning of Peat Island (the site of a disability institution for 99 years) and for memorialisation and truth-telling.
There have been recent calls for apology and truth-telling in the mental health system and reparations for sterilisation.
Our research explored what people with intellectual disability want the public to know about large residential settings.
We found people with intellectual disability support the wider community learning more of what was experienced in these places. Sharing this history is an important step towards repairing past wrongs, ending institutionalisation, segregation and exclusion, and realising equality and inclusion.
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A way forward
People with disability, including those with intellectual disability, must lead reparation design and development.
The disability royal commission has highlighted systemic violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in today’s Australia. These criminal practices reinforce a century-long history of injustice from institutionalisation.
Now is the time to act to ensure this does not continue. Reparations are one way to do this.