The first public hearings of the Disability Abuse Royal Commission have begun in Townsville where witnesses have recounted their stories and experiences of discrimination and stigma.
The four-day inquiry will consider the significance of the United Nations Convention – which recognizes the right of people with disability to education without discrimination.
“The commission recognizes the pervasive and significant effect that adverse education experiences can have on a person’s life journey, particularly so a person with a disability,” Counsel Assisting Dr Kerri Mellifont said.
“Getting education right is the starting point for the prevention of violent abuse, neglect and exploitation and it is the starting point for creating an inclusive society.”
The commission’s first witness, AAA, told how her daughter who lives with Down Syndrome was segregated by her school from other students because of her disability.
“It was always hard to get her to be included in what was taken for granted by other students,” she told the Commission.
In addition to being abusive, her daughter’s teacher would yell and scream at her.
“It became really obvious that my daughter was petrified and didn’t want to go to school,” Witness AAA said.
“We spent the next week in recovery mode, trying to get her to the point where she wasn’t screaming and bawling her eyes out for most of the day, and working out what our options where.”
“That’s when we decided that we had to move schools.”
Dr Lisa Bridle, a senior consultant for Community Resource Unit, told the commission about the prevalence of ‘gatekeeping’ in education, when mainstream schools introduce barriers to enrolment to discourage parents of disabled students.
“When students approach a regular school, a lot of advice [is] that the correct enrolment would be enrolment at a special school rather than at the local neighbourhood school.”
“The things that are said to families are, We don’t cater to students with this level of disability, we don’t have the resources, we can’t ensure your child will be safe.”
Greens Senator Jordan Steele-John was present at the hearing, having pushed for a Royal Commission in Australia’s treatment of disabled people for over eighteen months.
"Australia is failing disabled children and their families," he said. "We are segregating disabled kids and we are doing it with public money."
"Since the millennium, we've gone backwards [and] what we see hear is a culture that normalizes the abuse of disabled kids."
When the first set of hearings conclude on Thursday, two commissioners will travel to Palm Island-bwgcolman, 57 kilometres northeast off the coast from Townsville, to talk to residents about their experiences of abuse and neglect.
There will also be hearings in 2020 focusing on the testimonies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
Chair of the Commission Ronald Sackville QC says the commission is “conscious of the need to take into account the multiple and cumulative form of disadvantage that often affects people with disability.”
“This is perhaps most obvious in the case of First Nations people with disability, particularly those in remote communities,” he said.
“Research and information thus far has indicated that segregation from the mainstream classroom has a compounding effect on First Nations’ students with disability,” Dr Mellifont said.
“First Nations and culturally and linguistically diverse parent’s families may already be experiencing racial discrimination in trying to engage with the school in seeking support.”