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The disability royal commission’s final report has brought together more than 4½ years of hearings.
Its 12 volumes contain 222 recommendations for governments, institutions and the Australian community to ensure the 4.4 million Australians with disabilities can live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. Here’s what you need to know.
Governor-General David Hurley (left) receives the final report of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability from chairman Ronald Sackville on Thursday.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
1. Horrific stories of abuse
The first volume of the royal commission’s final report is dedicated to the more than 9000 stories shared by people with disabilities, their families, carers and advocates.
There were stark statistics: 55 per cent of people with a disability between 18 and 64 had been physically or sexually abused, there were 400 avoidable deaths each year, and 47 per cent of adults with a disability were excluded from the labour market, NDIS Minister Bill Shorten said on Friday.
Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth said the stories had shocked Australia. “There is the experience of Rebecca, a woman with autism and an intellectual disability who had a large clump of hair pulled out as she was dragged across the floor by another resident in a group disability home in Melbourne,” she said.
“Or there’s Hashem, who lives with chronic pain, chronic fatigue, anxiety, and depression … He had bottles and rocks thrown at his house, his possessions urinated on, and even experienced death threats.
“And then there’s the broader stories of exclusion, like Zoya, in her early 50s, who had a physical disability and vision impairment … She would be turned down for the job, despite clearly being qualified for the roles or, indeed, the preferred candidate.”
2. ‘Segregation’ in Australia
This was the key area where the six commissioners’ views diverged.
Some commissioners said special schools, group homes and disability workshops amounted to “segregation” that was incompatible with an inclusive society. As such, they said those settings should be phased out over time.
Commissioners Barbara Bennett, Dr Rhonda Galbally and Alastair McEwin said it was “unconscionable that segregation on the basis of disability remains a policy default in Australia in the 21st century”.
But others said the choice was not between wholly separate and wholly inclusive settings. Chair Ronald Sackville and commissioner John Ryan said there should be a more nuanced consideration of specific circumstances.
They did not think separating people with disability always warranted the term “segregation”. They said separating people with disability in certain settings did not, and should not, necessarily mean they were isolated from the general community.
Commissioner Andrea Mason advocated considering the issue on a case-by-case basis.
3. Education and special schools
All the commissioners said the education system needed to be transformed so more children could be educated in mainstream schools with the support they needed. The inquiry heard of families discouraged from attending mainstream schools, students with a disability being frequently suspended, and exclusions from school excursions and sporting events.
“Mainstream schools need major reforms to overcome the barriers that prevent students with disability, particularly students with intellectual disability, accessing safe, equal and inclusive education,” the report said.
The commissioners want all governments to develop a “national roadmap to inclusive education” for students with a disability that details targets and actions, and for education ministers to refine funding arrangements for students with a disability.
They say there should be a legal entitlement for students with a disability to enrol in mainstream schools so their attendance can’t be informally discouraged.
Three commissioners – Bennett, Galbally and McEwin – said segregated special schools should be abolished over the next 28 years so all students are fully included in mainstream schools.
The change would be grandfathered so no student would be forced to leave, but there would be no new enrolments from 2032 onwards and no students in any special school by 2052. Schools would be given transition funding to improve their supports.
But three others – Sackville, Ryan and Mason – did not agree. They said “non-mainstream schools” had their place for students with complex needs, and there should instead be regular interactions between children in social, sporting and recreational activities.
4. Group homes
The commissioners said there should be a greater range of accommodation available to people with disability so they weren’t forced to live in group homes.
“The royal commission heard evidence across a range of public hearings that current practices in group homes can fail to keep people with disability safe. They also deny people with disability the power to exercise choice and control, including over where and with whom they live,” the report said.
It said people with disability had been “conspicuously absent” from national housing and homelessness policy frameworks. There needed to be more supply of accessible housing, more tenancy protections for people with a disability and better regulatory oversight of supported accommodation.
Four of the commissioners want group homes phased out within the next 15 years. Ryan said they should be phased out in stages over a generation, while Sackville said people with disability should retain the ability to choose.
5. Barriers to employment
People with disabilities face systemic barriers to employment and there must be more opportunities for their employment in the open labour market, the final report said. There should be a particular focus on opening doors to public sector employment and leveraging governments’ procurement power to boost inclusive employment practices in the private sector.
Specifically, the commission recommended a 7 per cent target for new public service hires by 2025, increasing to at least 9 per cent by 2030.
The Australian Network on Disability welcomed the targets for the public sector but was surprised these did not extend to the private sector.
“The 30 per cent employment gap for people with disability compared to people without has barely changed in over 20 years,” chief executive Corene Strauss said.
The report also said people working in Australian Disability Enterprises, formerly known as sheltered workshops, were usually paid below the minimum wage. It said they should be paid at least 50 per cent of the minimum wage, and move to the full amount by 2034.
The same four commissioners – Bennett, Galbally, Mason and McEwin – said disability enterprises should be phased out because they increase the risk of abuse and exploitation.
6. Australian Disability Rights Act and Disability Commission
The commissioners called for a federal Australian Disability Rights Act, which would articulate the human rights of people with disabilities, create appropriate enforcement mechanisms and provide access to effective remedies when rights were breached.
A new independent statutory body, the National Disability Commission, should also monitor and report outcomes for people with a disability.
They said the current Disability Discrimination Act, created in 1992, had not created enough incentives for employers, schools or service providers to actively prevent disability discrimination.
The report also called for a federal disability inclusion minister with a dedicated department that has responsibility for national disability policies and programs. At the moment, Shorten oversees the insurance scheme while Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth looks at the broader disability services space through the Department of Social Services.
States and territories should also have a one-stop-shop for people with a disability to report violence or abuse, as well as a disability death review scheme to identify and prevent potentially avoidable and early deaths.
7. Restrictive practices
People with disabilities can be subject to restrictive practices – such as seclusion, mechanical restraints, and chemical restraints through sedative drugs – in NDIS services, healthcare, schools and prisons.
The NDIS Commission said there were 1.4 million cases of unauthorised restrictive practices and 5.6 million uses of authorised restrictive practices in 2021-22.
The commissioners want states and territories to reduce the use of restrictive practices in their legal frameworks, and aim for eventual elimination. They said the seclusion of children or self-harming people should be prohibited, while neck holds, drugs and metal handcuffs should also be banned in health settings.
8. Criminal justice system
People with disabilities, particularly those with cognitive disabilities, are significantly over-represented at all stages of the criminal justice system.
In youth detention, in particular, children with disability are likely to have experienced trauma.
“The over-representation of First Nations people with cognitive disability in custody, particularly in youth detention, is a largely hidden national crisis,” the report said.
The commissioners said solitary confinement – locking children in their cells for 22 or more hours a day – had been used in most state and territory juvenile detention centres and should be prohibited. They also called for the minimum age of criminal responsibility to be raised to 14 nationwide.
9. Disability services
Disability service providers needed robust and transparent policies and procedures to detect and respond to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. There should be rigorous screening of disability support workers, effective training, and a national worker registration scheme to support workforce development.
The report said there were too many pockets of Australia – particularly for First Nations people in remote areas – where there were not enough disability services. It called for governments to develop and fund a “provider of last resort scheme” to ensure people in those circumstances, as well as those in crisis situations or at risk of abuse, could always access support.
10. The NDIS and its safety regulator
Shorten said the royal commission’s report should help the government bring down cost pressures on the insurance scheme and meet an 8 per cent annual growth target.
“The challenge has been … that the NDIS was in danger of becoming the only lifeboat in the ocean. If it’s the only way the parents of a little child with developmental delay can get support. They’ll do anything to get their child on the NDIS, I don’t blame them,” he said.
“But if we start including kids with special needs in our education system better … when we have early intervention available more easily, that actually helps moderate the growth rate of the NDIS.”
But he said there were issues with the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission that needed to be addressed. The report made 44 recommendations to improve the watchdog, which it criticised as opaque and inconsistent.
“This will be used to powerfully inform pretty urgent action we want to take to make sure the Quality and Safeguards Commission is actually keeping people safe,” Shorten said.
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