People with disabilities are still vastly underrepresented among witnesses at the disability royal commission, prompting concerns the landmark inquiry is overlooking key evidence.
Only five witnesses called to address the eleventh public hearing, which began in Brisbane on Tuesday, have lived experience of disability, according to witness lists compiled by the commission.
This is compared to the 28 witnesses called on to give evidence as professional experts, advocates, or family members of people with disability.
The lack of testimony from people with disabilities comes amid ongoing concerns over the way the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has been managed, including calls for greater privacy safeguards.
“It should be a baseline expectation, it almost goes without saying, that a significant proportion – I would argue the majority – of people who are given the opportunity to give evidence to the commission are themselves disabled people,” said Western Australian Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John, who lives with cerebral palsy.
He said the commission has drifted away from a longstanding catch cry in the disability community which states “nothing about us, without us”.
“It almost seems like we’re on the verge of a commission that’s going to explore everything about us, without us. And that is not acceptable,” he told SBS News.
Senator Steele-John is among advocates who spent years calling for a royal commission into the mistreatment and neglect of people with disability in Australia.
He now fears the long-anticipated probe will not be able to accomplish its aims due to its failure to establish trust with the disability community.
In October last year the chair of the commission, Ronald Sackville, a former Federal Court judge, requested a 1.5 year extension for the commission to complete its work, describing the process as a “not a sprint” but “a marathon”.
It was originally scheduled to hand down its final report in April 2022, but if the extension is granted, the deadline would be moved to September 2023.
The request for an extension came shortly after Attorney-General Christian Porter announced plans to amend the royal commission legislation to ensure the confidentiality of witnesses during and beyond the inquiry, following a long campaign by disability activists who warned a lack of safeguards were stopping people from coming forward.
Currently, witnesses are able to request confidentiality for the duration of the inquiry and participate in private sessions, but there is no safeguard to ensure the identities behind written submissions are sealed after the commission hands down its final report.
Four months after announcing plans to amend Royal Commissions Act 1902 to ensure confidentiality beyond the life of the inquiry, as requested by Mr Sackville, the government has yet to reveal the details of the planned changes.
Mr Porter has previously said he aimed to introduce the amendments in the Autumn sittings of 2021.
President of People With Disability Australia, the peak national body, Sam Connor said it was “not good enough” that almost 1.5 years into the commission, which opened in September 2019, there were still clear issues with ensuring people with disability were coming forward to give evidence.
“If we’ve come this far and we still have a minority of disabled people on the stand, we need to be looking at if the disability royal commission is accessible, for people with cognitive disability especially,” she said.
“And if it’s not accessible, the disability royal commission should be asking themselves why. We need to have the authentic voice of people with disability rather than proxies.”
The final witness list is compiled by the royal commission, under the leadership of Mr Sackville.
“When we look at a list of hearing participants that are majority not disabled people, the responsibility for that decision ultimately lies with the chair,” Senator Steele-John said.
“Chair Sackville has both a responsibility to ensure that disabled voices are represented in the witness lists and the responsibility to correct that if it is not the case.”
It was also a “red flag” that only two of the seven commissioners – Alastair McEwin and Rhonda Galbally – were people with disabilities, he said.
Ms Connor said there were multiple reasons why people with disability were not being adequately represented on the stand, including a historical devaluing of disabled voices.
“But there are also barriers,” she said, “which include finances, people being able to tell their story safely, and there’s the issue of accessibility.”
These barriers include the risk for people who live in institutional settings in speaking out about their treatment within those organisations.
“We need to make sure people have confidentiality provisions in place so that whistleblowers can tell their stories, if required, and not have to be worried about something being subpoenaed,” she said.
“There’s a raft of reasons people haven’t been able to or may have been unwilling to come forward in the past.”
Mr Sackville told SBS News it was incorrect to say people with disabilities were underrepresented as witnesses, citing the role of the royal commission to hear first-hand stories of violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation while also striving to understand “why and how these things occur and what needs to be changed to prevent the reoccurrence of these mistreatments”.
“The royal commission is required to explore how systemic issues develop and what the solutions to them might be, this means that evidence must be sought from a variety of witnesses,” he said.
He added that all witnesses are offered counselling before, during and after they are called to give evidence, by professional counsellors trained in working with people who have experienced trauma.
The eleventh public hearing, looking at the experiences of people with cognitive disability inside the criminal justice system, will continue next week before concluding on 25 February.
On the first day of the recent hearing, Melanie, who used a pseudonym, detailed her experience in the justice system as an Indigenous woman with an intellectual disability.
The commission was told Melanie was regularly kept in isolation for 23 hours a day over seven years, with her freedom further limited depending on behaviour.
“It was inhumane to keep someone locked up for that long in a seclusion area,” Melanie said.
The commission’s interim report, released in October last year, noted high rates of violence against people with disability, stating that over a 12-month period people with disability are twice as likely as people without a disability to experience violence.
A free national legal service has been established to assist people to share their story with the commission. The service, called Your Story Disability Legal Support, is independent of the inquiry and funded by Legal Aid.
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