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Routinely ignoring rights of people with disability a key factor in mistreatment

People with disability routinely experience being called ‘inferior’, ‘a burden’, or ‘a menace’. They say they are subject to assumptions that they are ‘of no value’, ‘not fully human’, ‘objects of pity’, ‘eternal children’ or ‘better off dead’.

These are just a few of the labels people with disability commonly encounter as reported in the ‘Overview of responses to the Rights and attitudes issues paper’, published by the Disability Royal Commission today.

Many respondents told the Royal Commission of the long term harm derogatory language can have. It also reflects the ingrained discrimination which still exists in Australia towards people with disability.

Over 4.4 million Australians have a disability, or 1 in 5. That number increases to 1 in 2 for those aged 75 years and older.

Despite that the extent of disability in the community, many respondents described how they are affected on a daily basis by a fundamental lack of awareness and understanding of the rights of people with disability. The responses to the issues paper identified this lack of awareness, coupled with discriminatory attitudes at nearly every level of society, as key factors behind the abuse and mistreatment of so many people with disability.

Multiple respondents explained the damage caused by the common assumption in the broader community that people with disability cannot make their own decisions. This often means that people with cognitive disability are denied the opportunity to exercise choice and control over their own lives.

One woman with disability in her early fifties said “… in her entire life to date, she had been told what she ‘could’ do or was ‘allowed’ to do, but that she had never before been asked what she might want.”

Respondents also expressed significant concerns about Australia’s systems of guardianship that authorises substituted decision-making in certain circumstances for people with cognitive disability.

While recognising that “… legislation is intended to uphold rights” one response told us “in practice that is not the case”. Instead, laws operate in a way that is “disenfranchising”, resulting in a loss of self-confidence and a diminished ability to think independently.

Another response pointed out that although the intention of placing a person with disability under guardianship is to protect them, in reality “… removing ‘control from a person who is being abused … compounds their trauma.”

Many responses called for reforms to promote supported decision-making which provides people with disability with the assistance necessary to make their own decisions. They argued that at present, “supported decision-making is not sufficiently implemented in Australia and substituted decision-making is largely unscrutinised.”

Overwhelmingly, responses emphasised the need for more education about the rights of people with disability, particularly in schools. Responses said improved disability rights education was necessary to prevent discrimination, promote equality and combat ignorance and intolerance towards people with disability.

Responses also called for greater recognition of the importance of advocacy and significantly more funding for advocacy services.

Finally, responses highlighted the importance of the media accurately depicting people with disability. They called for an end to the “shamefully one-dimensional” and “often negative” portrayals of disability through stereotypes. Instead, responses called for the media to promote positive attitudes and honest representations of people with disability.