Why I have few hopes for the Disability Royal Commission

There are people in this country we accept violence will be perpetrated against.

It is hard not to believe this when I think of the way disabled bodies like Stephen Ind, a twenty-nine-year-old quadriplegic man who had made complaints of sexual assault and misconduct by his carers, and was left face-down to suffocate and die.

It is hard not to believe this when I think of Shona Hookey, a twenty-nine-year-old Aboriginal woman with an intellectual disability who died of peritonitis caused by a twisted bowel, left undiagnosed and mistreated by hospital staff.

It is hard not to believe this when I think of Isabella Leiper, a nine-year-old with cerebral palsy who was found dead with injuries caused by blunt force trauma to her stomach.

It is hard not to believe this when I watch the abuse perpetrated against my mum. When some days I meet her with bruises and bloody toes, or when she discloses to me sexual assault or emotional torment. It is hard not to believe that our society accepts and legitimises abuse against disabled people when our bodies and spirits say otherwise.

The way violence and abuse perpetrated against disabled people has been normalised within Australia is not hard to trace. This country  –  illegal, stolen  –  is only young. The social fabric of this land, for the past 231 years, has had embedded in it massacre, genocide and the regulation of bodies. Regulating black bodies by any means necessary – whether that be by enslaving them, stealing them, imprisoning them, disappearing them or killing them – has been foundational to the colonial project.

As this project has expanded, the regulation of other bodies has become necessary. Regulating sick and disabled bodies by criminalising and locking them away has been the ‘solution’ put forth by a society in which people’s value and humanity has been tied not only to their skin but also their labour. Meaning has become so synonymous with productivity that the bodies who can’t create profit have to be hidden away.

The segregation and disappearing of sick and disabled people have rooted themselves within nearly every aspect of society. It has been visible in institutions throughout the early twentieth-century, in which hundreds of Aboriginal people ‘suspected of venereal diseases’ were locked away on Bernier and Dorre Islands. It has been visible through ongoing institutionalisation in asylums or even the imprisonment of disabled people as a last resort after NDIS providers have withdrawn care. It has been visible simply through the way society has failed to removes barriers to access.

The opportunity, then, for this country to begin talking about the abuse and violence perpetrated against disabled people is momentous. Many in the Australian disability community have been fighting for an inquiry like this Royal Commission for years. Many have died waiting. I am forever grateful to those whose persistent advocacy has led to this moment. I am forever mourning for those who will never get the opportunity to testify and heal.

Having a national platform to speak of abuse is not something to be underestimated. Giving voice to disabled people, who have deliberately been silenced, has the chance to be empowering for many who, like my mum, have rarely been believed. The stories and evidence people share will be crucial in helping this country understand how deeply-rooted violence against disabled people is. I expect what we hear will be damning. It will be hard.

But I also want us to be honest with ourselves. Royal Commissions do not promise justice – people may speak to them, but that does not promise they will be heard.

One only has to look at the way Australia responded to the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The over-representation of Aboriginal people in custody was laid bare in front of Australian eyes. The blames was laid on police brutality, corruption and a deeply prejudiced legal system. Yet after the twenty-eights anniversary of that Royal Commission, only two-thirds of the recommendations have been implemented and the rate of Indigenous incarceration has doubled. Four hundred Aboriginal people have since died. People like Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day, who would still be alive if only the recommendation of abolishing the offence of public drunkenness had been implemented.

Why did the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody fail to deliver justice? The closest answer I ever come to is a belief that Australian society was never genuine in engaging with the question of Aboriginal deaths in the first place. Delivering justice would have required Australia to answer why it kills Aboriginal people and how these murders sustain a system of ongoing violence, theft and genocide. This is a conversation about the very foundations of this society – a conversation many cannot find the humanity to have.

I worry, then, that a conversation about disability and the violence perpetrated against disabled people awaits the same fate. That Australian society is not ready or willing to look deep within itself and begin to reconcile why disabled bodies are locked away. Why, for so many, the torture, beatings and rape of disabled people are acceptable. How, beyond our own ideas of ‘fairness’ and ‘dignity,’ the humanity of so many disabled people in this country can still be denied.

When my mum and I talk, even about mundane things like my uni classes or what she’s watching on Netflix, our conversations are nearly always pulled back into the realm of abuse and violence. Often, she tells me she ‘feels like a hurt animal, with no strength or resilience left.’ Her dehumanisation has become so routine, so expected, that she has trouble recognising herself as human, deserving of love, safety and justice.

What if the Royal Commission doesn’t change these conversations? What if that love, safety and justice is not delivered because Australia is still not ready to concede her humanity, as an Aboriginal woman and a disabled woman? What if our testifying to the commission acts only a test run for future coroner’s inquiries?

Twenty-eight years on and this has been the reality for mob. It is hard to imagine a Disability Royal Commission that doesn’t end like this, too.


Imahe: Jurek Durczak

Vanamali Hermans

Vanamali Hermans is a Wiradjuri, Irish and Flemish woman. She is a disabled organiser and writer living in Canberra on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land..

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