A light has been thrown on the United States as the world watches racial tensions rise after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. Whether forged in the chaos of COVID-19 or the systemic injustices endured by people of colour over many decades; there is a foreboding sense that the country has reached a critical turning point.
For First Nations Australians, these scenes bring into sharp focus the status of race relations in our own country. As another National Reconciliation Week passes, this too is a reminder for many of us about how far our nation still has to go.
As we forge ahead with the important work on the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, I’m mindful of the inquiry fatigue that grips First Nations peoples. This fatigue grows with every death in custody, every child placed in care and every time another First Nations person is incarcerated. This fatigue is the basis for the current state of affairs. It is the voice of injustice demanding to be heard.
As a Commissioner, I stand with First Nations people with disability and their families. Throughout our Inquiry, I will sit with these members, to listen and learn from their experiences of violence abuse, neglect and exploitation.
For all of the inquiries, there has been very little oversight of the experiences of First Nations people with disability. As a much overlooked area of public policy, the Royal Commission hopes to finally elevate the reality of what it means to be a First Nations person with disability in this country.
Deputy CEO of the First People’s Disability Network June Reimer has described the experience of First Nations people with disability as one of “living in three worlds,” one where race, disability and navigating mainstream Australia collide. Others have shared with the Royal Commission that their experience of disability is a form of “apartheid” that separates them from the rest of society and that this is compounded by abuse, whether at the hands of those they love or those providing care.
Momentary glimpses of this, splashed across our TV screens or news feeds, and bearing the names of people such as Rosie Fulton or Marlon Noble give us insights into what First Nations people with disability may experience at least in a justice setting. But there are so many names that we do not know and places where untold abuse is occurring. Unfortunately, for many First Nations people, experiences of indefinite detention, of undiagnosed disability for those in prison and people acquiring disabilities due to violence are commonplace.
More troubling still is the research pointing to the number of vulnerable young people who are in youth detention with undiagnosed issues and who are set to become embedded in the pipeline of Indigenous incarceration. Without appropriate action, we will continue to see these rates rise, testing once again, the patience and faith of our people for processes aimed at addressing injustice.
Justice is but one of many important areas of our focus. To date, our work has highlighted that stories of abuse span well beyond the prison walls and that whether
in hospitals, school yards, foster care, or in regional and remote areas, First Nations people are telling us that their experiences of violence, abuse and neglect form part of their everyday lives.
While our hearings have been postponed in the wake of the COVID pandemic, we have continued to work with First Nations people through engagements and submission processes. Our latest issues paper is also a call out to those in our communities to step forward and share their experiences with us.
I understand the well-founded scepticism that exists about the revolving door of yet another inquiry. This remains a key challenge for the Royal Commission. However, I ask First Nations people to suspend their judgment and help me to tell their story of disability and experiences of harm in this country.
It is only through sharing these truths that we might begin to address some of the many situations that we know exist and need to be corrected. For our people, these stories of trauma and pain are carried in our songlines and in our families and communities, some for generations. It is time to throw a spotlight on these and tell the collective story that the rest of Australia finally needs to hear.
Opportunties for transformational change do exist with this Royal Commission and it starts with us. Please walk with me.
- Commissioner Andrea Mason is a Ngaanyatjarra and Karonie woman from Western Australia. She is one of the Commissioners at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.