With the vote to establish a royal commission into violence and abuse of people with disability passing through the House of Representatives in the Australian parliament, the question now is: why do we need a royal commission and what should happen next?
Over many years there has been a growing and significant body of evidence of violence and abuse experienced by persons with disability across a range of life domains including the disability service sector.
The Australian Senate conducted a national inquiry into violence, abuse and neglect against people with disability in institutional and residential settings in 2015.
It found that violence and abuse against people with disability is an ‘epidemic’, and that it occurs in a range of settings, including the disability and mental health service system, aged care, child care, schools and educational settings, hospitals and prisons.
It is estimated that the incidence of violence against people with a disability is at least three times higher than the general population.
This violence is less likely to be reported, investigated or prosecuted, with much higher rates for women with disability, particularly more marginalised women, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women with disability.
Critically, the evidence suggests that instances of violence and abuse against people with disability are routinely ignored or downplayed.
Violence and abuse are often conceptualised as service incidents, or a workplace issue to be dealt with administratively – as opposed to violence or a criminal matter.
Often normalised, the lack of response to many instances of violence and abuse suggests systemic failure across these systems.
As with the recent banking royal commission, the question is: what is the genesis of such cultural acceptance and normalisation within systems of abuse across systems, and what reforms and cultural change needs to take place to address it?
Research has demonstrated that people with disability can be extremely disadvantaged in understanding, articulating and reporting experiences of trauma. Often their responses to trauma are conflated as manifestations of the person’s underlying condition. And then they are further disadvantaged through inadequate support and mechanisms to communicate their experience and access to investigation and redress.
A royal commission is well placed to examine the multiple forms and complex nature of violence and abuse of people with disability in Australia, as well as current legislative, policy and service responses.
A critical role would be to examine the protections and responses that are afforded and to assess the adequacy of any avenues for recourse and mechanisms for reparations.
This will require a comprehensive analysis across systems.
As such, the broad powers of a royal commission provide a framework for a comprehensive investigation into the various forms of violence across systems and domains – powers that allow it to compel witnesses, and to identity and refer any matters of criminal activity.
The important thing from here is that the terms of reference are wide enough to cover what the Senate inquiry found was an epidemic across a range of systems.
The terms of reference would need cover all the places where people with disability experience violence and abuse, including schools, prisons, homes, hospitals, mental health facilities, along with all disability support institutions and organisations, not just in the disability service sector.
Rosemary Kayess is Interim Director and Director Engagement of the Disability Innovation Institute at UNSW.