After a serious car accident 10 years ago, Dinesh Palipana was told he would have to drastically reconsider his dreams, and that his quality of life would never be the same.
- Dr Dinesh Palipana had trouble securing employment that was otherwise guaranteed to medical graduates in Australia because he had a spinal cord injury
- He is making a submission to the disability royal commission, but only 8 per cent of the submissions received so far relate to people from cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds
- Indigenous communities are also under-represented
Now a doctor himself, the 35-year-old wants to encourage others living with disability to determine their own futures.
“There were a lot of people who told me I would never go back to medical school and doctors who said I’d never be able to do ward rounds,” Dr Palipana said.
Born in Sri Lanka, Dr Palipana was driving from Brisbane to the Gold Coast in 2010 when his car spun out of control in wet conditions.
His resulting spinal cord injury means he has no movement from the chest down, and uses a wheelchair to get around.
He also lost movement in his fingers and now has partial use of his arms.
After acquiring his injury, he quickly discovered the negative attitudes about disability extended far beyond the hospital bed.
“When I went back to medical school I realised all the barriers that existed for people living with a disability,” he recalled.
“The school I was at was very supportive but there were a lot of structural problems including policies which could have prevented people with disability from going into medicine and people who were encouraged to choose other careers.
“It didn’t matter that I had good grades or that I’d been around the hospital as a student and demonstrated that I had the skills.
“I’ve even had someone [in a leadership position] say ‘we don’t really want you in this department and I don’t want you to tell anyone’.”
Those are just some of the stories Dr Palipana will include in his submission to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.
But while he’s sharing his experiences with the inquiry, many others are not — particularly those from non-English speaking and Indigenous communities.
Cultural diversity lacking in submissions
The disability royal commission has released a snapshot of the more than 1,100 submissions received so far.
Of those, 47 per cent were made by people with lived experience of disability, yet only 8 per cent of all submissions relate to people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, and only 5 per cent relate to Indigenous people.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics there are more than 4 million people living with a disability in Australia.
An estimated 14 per cent of this cohort were born in non-English speaking countries, while 7 percent identify as Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander.
Dominic H?ng ??c Golding is from the National Ethnic Disability Alliance and said people need to know they have the right to speak out against violence or abuse.
“They need reassurance that making a submission would not somehow harm them by either having their Centrelink payments cut off or the threat of deportation,” he said.
Mr Golding, who was born in Vietnam, lives with cerebral palsy and hearing loss, and said there were several reasons people from non-English speaking backgrounds may be reluctant to engage with the inquiry.
“Many of these people come from countries where you either have to pay a lot of money to get disability support, or you’ve been fleeing through different countries and the refugee situation has not been one where a person can get the services they want,” he said.
Mr Golding said it didn’t help that the majority of the sector communicated in English, and that translation services were often hard to come by.
“Not only do you have cultural stigma, religious stigma, community stigma, and then you find families that don’t feel empowered to engage with mainstream disability services because it’s an English-dominated system,” he said.
Bid to encourage Indigenous participation
It isn’t just multicultural communities that have trouble engaging with disability services.
Deputy chief executive of the First Peoples Disability Network Australia, June Riemer, said history could be preventing Indigenous people living with disability from making submissions.
“For the majority of our mob, they don’t even know there’s a commission happening and what it means for them,” she said.
“Then there’s historical reasons why people won’t connect with government processes as we all know … for example, a mother might be too afraid to talk about her child with disabilities with the fear that she’ll be judged.”
The Gumbaynggirr and Dunghutti woman said advocacy groups were given extra funding but it was not enough to “support people appropriately”.
“We also need to get out there and spread the context of what the commission needs and how people can share their stories whether that’s through art, video or one-on-one,” she said.
“The counselling groups have been very well funded and that’s great but the advocacy is the most important part … why would you need counselling if you don’t know you’ve suffered neglect, violence or abuse?”
A Federal Government spokesperson said $33.6 million had been allocated to advocacy support over the next three years, including $6 million for Indigenous-specific advocacy.
Additional funding had also been given to the First Peoples Disability Network and the National Ethnic Disability Alliance.
Chair of the disability royal commission, Ronald Sackville, said an enormous amount of work had gone into engaging with those communities across the country, including setting up a First Nations Strategic Advisory Group and extensive consultation with cultural representative organisations.
But he said it was understandable some people were still nervous about engaging with the process.
“There are the more recent arrivals to this country experiencing trauma or oppression in their own countries and it’s not surprising that there are suspicions held about people in authority organisations, perhaps including royal commissions,” he said.
“They can be assured that it is not our function to report who may have particular visa issues and people can be assured that their confidentiality will be respected within the commissioner’s part of the process.”
Speaking out to secure a brighter future
Fresh off a run of night shifts in a Gold Coast emergency department, Dr Palipana is looking forward to a future without barriers.
“I’ve been using dictation technology to take notes and writing prescriptions digitally using my knuckles which means my notes are actually legible,” he said.
“I’ve also taught myself to hold a stethoscope and examine patients with my arms.”
But he said he was continually shocked at the inequities faced by people with disability, and urged others to share their experiences with the royal commission.
“If you tell your story there’s nothing to be scared of because you’re speaking the truth.”
Counselling and legal support
- Blue Knot Foundation runs the National Counselling and Referral Service supporting the disability royal commission. They also help people with disability affected by trauma. Contact them on 1800 421 468
- Your Story Disability Legal Support provides free information and advice to people about sharing their story with the disability royal commission. Call 1800 77 1800