• FPDN CEO Damian Griffis highlighted thevulnerability of First Nations people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic at the Royal Commission (Supplied)Source: Supplied
For the first time, Australia’s human rights record in the area of Indigenous disability is being reviewed. Let's take a look into the complexities of this issue.
Laura Morelli

5 Aug 2016 - 3:19 PM  UPDATED 5 Aug 2016 - 3:19 PM

Damian Griffis, chief executive officer of the First Peoples Disability Network Australia says for several years now the FPDNA has been advocating about the issue of indefinite detention about Indigenous people with disability in prison, particularly in the Northern Territory.

“Where a person with a disability is unfit to plead, and when they’re considered to be a danger to themselves and to others, they're placed in prison without a conviction for an indefinite period of time…sometimes people have only committed minor offences, such as unpaid fines.”

"There can be no Australian more disadvantaged than a disabled Aboriginal person."

“What’s terrible about that is that people with intellectual disability are vulnerable to abuse, and there is no meaningful assistance to people with the disability once put in jail,” he said.  

Griffis says the system is failing disabled Aboriginal people. In other states across Australia, people are referred to disability support systems, but in the NT, this type of facility doesn’t exist.

“We're in this situation because there’s a complete and utter failure of disability service system in the NT. There's a critical need for the National Disability Insurance Scheme to be playing a role here because all of these people in this situation are severely and profoundly disabled and they need urgent help.”

“Disability is the last passion of human rights, it’s the poor cousin, it hasn’t gotten much attention and that’s the big issue.”

In 2012, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had higher rates of disability than non-Indigenous people across all age groups. Griffis confirms this figure and claims that in the 2011 Census, 50 per cent of Aboriginal people have some form of disability or long term condition. He says another social survey concluded 7.7 per cent of all aboriginal people have a severe or profound disability.

Griffis says there are several numbers that are still unreported and that this is not a fringe issue, but this is a major social justice issue in Australia.

“Disability is the last passion of human rights, it’s the poor cousin, it hasn’t gotten much attention and that’s the big issue.”

Griffis says communities lack the resources to provide resources that are needed.

“We know of at least 10 aboriginal people with a disability detained in NT prisons. There are high rates of Aboriginals with mental illness across Australia yet no one knows the exact number of disabled people locked up. Regardless, in these situations, we’re seeing a criminalisation of disability.”

What is happening now in our justice system:

The United Nations Human Rights Council is being asked to investigate the case of an intellectually disabled Aboriginal man who has been repeatedly strapped to a restraint chair in an Alice Springs prison.

25-year-old Malcolm Morton is being held in the maximum security section of the Alice Springs Correctional Centre and has been forcibly restrained in a chair and sedated on about 17 occasions since 2012, according to his guardian.

The revelations follow the chilling image of young Indigenous man Dylan Voller, who was beaten, bashed and forced into a restraint chair after threatening self-harm in an NT prison.

Griffifs says Australia is failing miserably to support the most vulnerable.

“If you judge the merits of a society based on how well the most vulnerable are supported, than Australia is failing miserably. It’s no longer a matter of developing plans, it’s now a time for meaningful action and the establishment of a national Aboriginal local area program focused on disability is a critical first step to begin to address this critical social justice issue.”

He says change needed to happen yesterday, but hopes a senate inquiry into the detention of people with disability will prove effective.

 "Aboriginal people with cognitive impairments, who don't have their voices heard, are powerless in this situation."

Griffifs says there can be no Australian more disadvantaged than a disabled Aboriginal person.

“There's clearly a cover-up going on here and there's a culture of cover-up I would say within the Northern Territory. It doesn't just relate to juvenile justice, it relates to the adult prison population, it relates to Aboriginal people with cognitive impairments, who don't have their voices heard, are powerless in this situation.” 

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