Ausnew Home Care | The biggest takeaways from the disability royal commission after four years of hearings

The biggest takeaways from the disability royal commission after four years of hearings

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WARNING: This story contains content that readers may find distressing, including references to sexual assault.

Sexual assaults in the home and by carers.

Children being removed from their mothers immediately after birth.

Forced sterilisation.

Getting paid $2.50 an hour for manual work.

These are just some of the many disturbing accounts heard by the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability over the last four and a half years.

For many in the disability community, these stories did not come as a surprise — they're well aware of the violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation they face.

But with the four-year inquiry wrapping up its final public hearing this week, they want the wider Australian community to know about it, too. 

And they want everyone to know these situations are not confined to history — they are still happening today.

Carers are meant to help you — not sexually assault you

Allegations of physical and sexual assaults of people with disability came up numerous times during the royal commission.

But perhaps the most shocking was heard in March 2022, when a Queensland woman who lives with cerebral palsy told the royal commission she was raped, beaten and "treated like a dog" by a paid personal assistant.

Chloe (not her real name) told the hearing into violence against women and girls with disabilities she was repeatedly raped by the man, fell pregnant and then lost the baby in one of the attacks in 2016.

She also said he burned cigarettes around her vagina, and used her phone and bank card.

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The royal commission heard numerous allegations of sexual violence against people with disability.()

The royal commission heard after an investigation the personal assistant was charged with multiple counts of rape, grievous bodily harm, torture and assault, but found not guilty.

"[The jury] saw me as disabled and a liar. They believed him because he's not disabled," Chloe said. 

Ninety per cent of women with intellectual disability have experienced sexual abuse, the royal commission heard in 2021.

Home should be a safe space — but that isn't the case for many with disability

Group homes are residences that aim to provide disadvantaged people with structured, supervised care and accommodation.

Some 17,000 people in Australia live in group homes, and most of those people live with intellectual disability, according to documents provided to the royal commission.

But often residents are not able to choose where they live, who they live with, what they eat or what they do.

And it's not always safe for them.

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The disability royal commission heard stories of violence and abuse at group homes.()

Over the years, the royal commission has heard of residents in group homes being physically and sexually assaulted, found with unexplained bruising and kept in "large caged areas"

In 2021, it heard a female resident living with cerebral palsy and intellectual disability had allegedly been indecently and sexually assaulted by a support worker at a northern NSW home.

A police investigation in 2015 led to charges of aggravated indecent assault of a person with physical disability and sexual intercourse with a person with cognitive impairment, but the worker was found not guilty.

Babies have been removed at birth from mothers with disability

Thelma Schwartz, of the Queensland Indigenous Family Violence Legal Service, told the royal commission in 2020 she'd witnessed the removal of babies from mothers with disability in the birthing suite.

"I would call it a heinous practice," she told a hearing into First Nations people with disabilities and their interactions with the child protection system.

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Thelma Schwartz says she witnessed the removal of children from mothers with disabilities

The Torres Strait Islander woman said the child protection system was stacked against First Nations women with disabilities and she'd dealt with removal in multiple generations of individual families.

Commissioner Ronald Sackville remarked that material from that week's hearing had the "resonance of the Stolen Generations".

The forcible sterilisation of women and girls with disability and their reproductive rights were also raised during public hearings.

While a hearing in 2021 was told about a lack of data on forcible sterilisation, Women with Disabilities Australia's Carolyn Frohmader shared some alarming anecdotes.

"We have some members who were told they were having their appendix taken out and didn't even know [they'd been sterilised] until they wanted to have children," she said.

"We've got members who were sterilised at the age of seven because they had a mild vision impairment."

It's legal to pay someone with disability less than $2.50 an hour

In April 2022, the royal commission heard the story of a man in Victoria with intellectual disability who'd been doing manual work in a warehouse.

"At the end of the day ... I'm always really exhausted and [have] a bit of a sore back," Greg Tucker said.

Mr Tucker said he'd been getting paid $2.50 an hour for his efforts.

It was all completely legal.

That's because Mr Tucker was working at an Australian disability enterprise (ADE). Previously known as sheltered workshops, ADEs provide employment for people with moderate to severe disability, separate from the mainstream workforce.

A screenshot of Greg Tucker giving evidence, in front of a purple Royal Commission banner.
Greg Tucker told the inquiry he'd been paid $2.50 an hour for two years.()

The inquiry heard those working in ADEs could legally be paid as little as $2.37 an hour.

About 600 ADEs  — some of them multi-million-dollar businesses — compete for work in industries such as laundry, packing and cleaning. Together, they employ some 20,000 people with disability.

The week he gave evidence, Mr Tucker said his wage was soon going to rise to $8 an hour. 

He told the royal commission he was too scared to ask for a boost that would take him closer to the minimum wage, which today sits at $21.38.

Advocates said no other Australian would accept that sort of pay and called for the government to fix wages for people with disability in ADEs.

'Just the right height for a blow job'

October 2022 saw the royal commission turn its attention to abuse, violence and harassment against people with disability in public places

People with disability regularly face questions from strangers about how they became disabled or how they do a particular activity.

But the royal commission heard that for many, the intrusions are horrific.

"I have had a hand coming down the front of my top, grabbing my breast. I have had comments saying having intercourse with me would be like having sex with a child," said Debra Keenahan, who is short of stature.

"Comments like 'you are just at the right height for a ... blow job' or 'while you're down there, love' — that's a classic one."

A woman of short stature with grey hair and a white shirt speaking at the royal commission
Debra Keenahan said she'd been harassed, assaulted and sexualised in a range of public spaces.()

The inquiry also heard of incidents where other people of short stature had been lifted off the ground by strangers, laughed at and photographed without their consent.

Carly Findlay — a disability advocate who lives with a rare skin condition called icthyosis — said she could not think of a single day when she had not been "mocked, laughed at or questioned" about her appearance outside her home. 

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Carly Findlay said she's ridiculed for or questioned about her disability every time she leaves the house.()

The abuse also occurs online, she said, recalling an experience when her photo was shared and ridiculed widely on discussion forum website Reddit.

"People said things like, 'what does your vagina look like?', 'what the f***k is that? It looks like something that was partially digested by my dog','" she said.

"They described me as a lobster. They said that I should be killed with fire."

What happens now?

We wait for the final report, which is set to be handed down in September.

The royal commission was brought about after years of advocacy by the disability community.

It's resulted in more than 10,000 people sharing their stories in public hearings, submissions or private sessions. 

The inquiry held 33 public hearings and travelled to every state and territory in the country collecting evidence, much of it difficult to hear and even more difficult to recount.

After all that, the disability community hopes the final report will make recommendations that bring about long-lasting change.

"We need to stop the abuse that is still happening," said disability advocate Leigh Creighton, who lives with Down syndrome.

"We need to make society more inclusive."


Source: ABC

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