The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has heard that people with cultural backgrounds who live with disability often experience isolation and abuse from within their communities, as well as feel frustrated when accessing the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
The Disability Royal Commission wrapped up its 29th public hearing today in Melbourne to examine the experiences of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities.
The five-day hearing had multiple witness statements from CALD people with disability, including people from the Deaf, Deafblind and hard-of-hearing community who identify as CALD.
For the first time in any Australian Royal Commission history, the hearing’s opening was delivered in Auslan.
CALD People with disabilities face ongoing barriers
An overarching theme of this week’s Royal Commission was that CALD people with disability were often trying to access services that did not understand their cultural needs.
Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, Chin Tan, spoke to the Commission about initiatives to eradicate racism and strategies to promote the inclusion of people with disability from multicultural communities.
He says participants in community consultations described the disability sector as “very European”.
“Ensuring cultural safety, respect and inclusion for culturally and linguistically diverse people is paramount,” says Mr Tan.
This was reflected by witnesses, with refugees and carers telling the Commission that services, such as the NDIS, are alienating them instead of helping them.
Witness Mr Rahman (pseudonym) detailed his experience as an asylum seeker living with a disability and how he was detained on Christmas Island.
The 36-year-old was born in Bangladesh, but his doctor’s orders to remain in Australia for medical treatment were ignored by authorities and he was shipped back to Christmas Island.
“It was humiliating to be handcuffed and treated like a criminal,” Mr Rahman told the Commission via an interpreter.
“I felt like I had engaged in a criminal activity just for being a disabled person.”
He detailed his detention in Nauru until 2019, when he was transferred to Australia through the Medevac program, saying he often went without food as he could not stand in the line.
When he was finally released into the Melbourne community on a bridging visa, Mr Rahman found accessing disability services was hard.
Unable to work because of his disability, he became homeless and had to eat out of rubbish bins for two months when his Centrelink payments and free accommodation stopped.
Another refugee, disability advocate and social worker Esther Simbi from South Sudan, took to the witness box again, having previously spoken at Hearing 17 of the Disability Royal Commission.
Ms Simbi explained to the Commission that from her experience as a person living with Post-Polio Syndrome and from her work, she found a lot of CALD communities did not know about the NDIS and found it difficult to understand due to language and cultural barriers.
She said in her culture, it was often the responsibility of other members of the family to make important decisions for a person with a disability, like a woman’s husband or older siblings, who she refers to as “gatekeepers”.
With this in mind, she told the Commission it is important for NDIS support workers to have more cultural training to understand CALD participants’ needs and their families, and to be able to detect signs of abuse coming from within the family.
CALD people with disability more likely to experience inequality
A panel of experts discussed the systemic abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability from CALD backgrounds, as well as share personal stories and testimonies from the communities they represent, at the Royal Commission.
People with Disability Australia (PWDA), the National Ethnic Disabilities Alliance (NEDA) and the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) have all assisted people with disability who have faced barriers due to their cultural background.
“People with disability from CALD backgrounds are more likely to experience inequality, discrimination, abuse, neglect and exploitation,” says NEDA Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Dwayne Cranfield.
Giancarlo de Vera, Senior Manager of Policy at PWDA, agreed, saying that ableism affects the whole disability community but is compounded by structural and interpersonal racism.
FECCA CEO, Mohammad Al-Khafaji, says, “The Royal Commission has seen that Australia is falling far short of its international human rights obligations when it comes to people with disability, and those of us from CALD backgrounds face extra barriers to equality.”
Deaf people’s hands are tied
Across the first few days of the Commission, witnesses from the Deaf, Deafblind and hard-of-hearing community shared their experiences of Auslan or sign language, and the impact of being deprived of language.
Deaf woman Natalie Sandon-Stanhope gave evidence about her experiences in primary school, where Auslan was banned.
“Our hands had to be sat on in class,” says Ms Sandon-Stanhope. “We had to use our lips to speak.”
Ben McTamaney of Deafblind Australia told the Commission how damaging these types of exclusions are, causing young people experiencing hearing impairments to have their options capped prematurely.
“We hear stories of a very firm ceiling being put on children’s potential very early on in age. And that can lead to all sorts of issues,” he says.
This sentiment was mirrored by Doctor Breda Carty AO, an expert and lived experience witness, who emphasised the importance of schools for hearing-impaired people.
“Deaf schools are historical and cultural sites for the Deaf community because that’s where Auslan is transmitted through generations, from child to child,” she says.
“The strength of our language today is because of the existence of those schools.”
The next hearing dates of the Royal Commission have not yet been announced. To get ongoing coverage of the Disability Royal Commission, subscribe to the Talking Disability newsletter.