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An Australian delegation has travelled to Geneva, to highlight concerns about lack of support services for people with a disability in this country. The group is addressing the United Nations committee reviewing Australia’s progress on the rights of people with disabilities. They’ll also present the findings of a new report, with the high incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians among the key issues. The delegation’s co-leader is Damian Griffiths: he’s the chief executive of the First Nations Disability Network and I spoke with him from Geneva.
Damian Griffiths: There’s two key issues that we are particularly focused on. One is the continuing indefinite detention of people with disability in Australian prisons, which disproportionately impacts on Aboriginal people with disability. Australia has made no progress on this issue since Australia first appeared before the committee in 2013. And the other issue we’re very anxious to talk to the committee about is the continuing forced sterilisation of women and girls with disability, which is an ongoing practice in Australia today despite that being condemned on a number of occassions by various U.N. agencies.
Hamish Macdonald: I was going to ask you, given that Australia, since 2013 when the delegation first when to U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, that the NDIS has been set up, there’s been a Royal Commission into the treatment of people with disabilities, whether things had improved? It sounds actually like the message is the opposite?
Damian: The message is the opposite, Hamish. The advent of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, while it was warmly welcomed by the disability community, the way it’s been rolled out has been very problematic, particularly for Aboriginal people with disability, in fact we would say the NDIS is failing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability. We would say at least 60,000 Aboriginal people are potentially eligible for the NDIS, but the number the NDIA uses is about 20,000. So frankly they’re wrong, when it comes to numbers of Aboriginal people who are eligible. And we are hearing repeated stories how difficult it is to access the NDIS, how hard it is to use and the scheme is becoming increasingly medicalised, which is not the philosophy if you like of the way the scheme was supposed to be established, it was supposed to be based around a human rights approach, but instead its taking an increasingly punitive medicalised approach.
Hamish: we obviously report fairly regularly on the NDIS and we’ve heard those stories of restriction to access. Is that particular acute for Indigenous Australians?
Damian: yeah, absolutely. So, one of the challenges that we’re hearing about consistently is the costs involved with getting an assessment. So having just returned from the Kimberlies, I heard a story there of a family being told they need $7500 for their young person with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder to get an assessment, so they don’t have that money naturally, so therefore they’re very unlikely to get into the scheme, so…and then the other problem we have is it really doesn’t exist, meaningful service system in regional and remote Australia, so in a lot of ways, we’d say we’re starting from an absolute base-line position and we need significant investment to meaningfully make change for the lives of Aboriginal people with disability, particularly those in regional and remote Australia.
Hamish: “And ummm, Damian, what’s happening to these people?”
Damian: Well they just effectively miss out. So they really… families do the best they can to support their family member with disability. So we’re also hearing stories of people spending long times on waiting lists, a year or more before their plans are even actioned. And then even in regional and remote Australia there’s nothing to purchase necessarily, so the market driven individualised approach is a bit of a nonsense really to be honest in regional and remote. We need to return to a community-based block-funding model in a lot of ways, because that’s the only way we’re going to make change out there.
Hamish: So and are we talking about people with severe disability?
Damian: Yes absolutely but if you take a social model of definition of disability, so that’s when, in simple terms social model says it’s society that creates the barriers for people with disability, so we would argue if you’re an Aboriginal person with let’s say lower limb amputation and you live in a remote community we would say you’re severely and profoundly disabled, because you’re not likely to be able to move around your community, probably won’t live in an accessible property, an accessible house, whereas if you’re living perhaps an urban environment you may have access to accessible transport, for example.
Hamish: is this sort of information — this knowledge — being fed back into the federal government, the various ministers that would have responsibility both for remote and regional communities, but presumably for disability services as well.
Damian: Well, we’re very frustrated, Hamish. We developed a ten-point plan for the implementation of the NDIS in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, we developed that in 2013, because sadly we imagined we would be in this position because what often happens with major social reforms, as you would know, Aboriginal people often get left behind, so we were quite prescriptive six years ago.
Hamish: A report that you’ve contributed to with nine Australian disability groups that is being presented to the U.N. indicates that people in residential care die at least 25 years earlier than the general population and the impact is worse for Indigenous people with disabilities and particularly Indigenous children, so there’s very real consequences here. Why is that?
Damian: There’s a number of things at play. One of the things that’s a major challenge in our community is that families are often very reluctant to come forward and ask for help particularly when it comes to disability because they’re concerned that they’re likely to have their child removed. The risks of asking for help, particularly if you have a child with disability, means that the system may make a judgement that you’re not a good parent and then you end up having your child removed. This is a common story and we know across most jurisdictions in Australia the rates of removal of Aboriginal children is increasing so then they’re very likely, the scenario that’s likely to play out is that the child may be removed and placed in some of these institutions and these institutions are some of the most secretive places in the country in many ways. And unfortunately with the way the NDIS is progressing at the moment we’re seeing more and more of these mini-institutions being established, so we’re pretty concerned things are going backwards.
Hamish: in this report it also indicates, and the figures and details here are pretty startling, that Indigenous people with a disability are 14 times more likely to be imprisoned than the rest of the population and up to a third or more of the total prison population either have an intellectual, physical or psychosocial disability. There is a question, it would seem to me, what are some of these people doing in prison and what happens to them once they’re there?
Damian: Well they shouldn’t be there in the first place, Hamish. So we’re seeing an increasing criminalisation of disability and the ABC has been reporting on this in recent months and there’s a number of examples that are showing that Aboriginal people with cognitive impairments being imprisoned, sometimes often indefinitely, so they’re effectively being accommodated in prison, because there’s no meaningful disability support system. That’s particularly problematic in the Northern Territory but even when they’re in prison, if they’d pled guilty to the crime they are alleged to have committed they would have been out of prison system much sooner than the indefinite detention period and then we have the vulnerability they experience when they’re in prison. So these are all historical failings of the disability support system. Young Aboriginal people with disability who don’t get the support when they’re young ending up in juvenile detention then going on to the adult prison population. Most of the Aboriginal prison population we would say have some form of disability.
Hamish: You mentioned that you’ve been flagging this with the federal government for many years. Does reporting it at a U.N. convention in the way that you’re doing make any meaningful difference?
Damian: I believe it does, because it can put pressure on the commonwealth government. We don’t want to hear the commonwealth government use the excuse of Federation and say well it’s a state and territory responsibility, therefore we don’t have to do anything. We need Commonwealth government, the Australian government to take leadership on this issue, we need to go to the series of recommendation we’ve been making for a long time and the priority must be, as a matter of urgency, we must end the unwarranted use of prisons for the management of unconvicted people with disability.
Hamish: Damian, you sound extraordinarily frustrated…
Damian: Yes, that’d be fair to say, Hamish, most definitely…
Hamish: We appreciate your time.
Damian: Thanks Hamish.
Hamish: Damian Griffiths, Chief Executive of the First Nations Disability Network
Source: ABC RN Breakfast Tuesday 10 September 2019 7:49AM