The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability held a special hearing on Monday investigating the COVID-19 vaccine rollout to disability residents and staff and its performance in the disability sector.
People with disability in residential care and staff were highlighted as a priority group of Phase 1a, in the Government's vaccine rollout initially, however, the Department of Health admitted at a Senate Select Committee hearing in April that disability residents were de-prioritised so they could vaccinate all aged care residents instead.
At the hearing, Counsel Assisting Kate Eastman SC, asked the Associate Secretary of the Department, Caroline Edwards, if she agreed that the rollout was an "abject failure". Ms Edwards did not agree with the assertion, but did accept that the rollout had been very slow and there was still a lot of work to be done.
Since 6 May, Government data shows 834 people with disability in residential care have been vaccinated and of that number only 127 people had received a second dose.
There is also a breakdown of States and Territories, which found that in Tasmania only eight people in disability residential care have been vaccinated and in South Australia only six people with disability in residential care have been vaccinated.
Around 1,098 disability support workers have been vaccinated in Australia from 21 April.
The Commission doesn't have any data on people with disability that have made their own arrangements for getting the vaccine.
Royal Commissioner Ronald Sackville AO QC says the Royal Commission will not wait until the Final Report is released to make actionable recommendations for the Government when it comes to vaccination procedures.
De-priorisation is discrimination
Chief Executive Officer of Inclusion Australia, Catherine McAlpine, appeared before the Commission to express her dismay at the handling of COVID-19 information and the vaccine rollout by the Government.
She described the de-priorisation as discrimination towards people with disability and stated most advocates had found the move "gobsmacking" that people with disability have been "put in the too hard basket".
"I am indicating, particularly once we found there was a pivot away from disability and the fact that [Phase] 1b had started for a greater variety of Australian citizens, that there had been a deliberate choice to not put the necessary resources into ensuring that people with disability in group homes received the vaccination according to the priority that the Government itself had set," says Ms McAlpine.
Over Ms Edwards questioning, Counsel Assisting Eastman found that there was not a lot of, or any, consultation with advisory groups or new scientific evidence to inform the decision to focus on aged care residents.
Ms Edwards, however, stands by the Department's decision to de-prioritise aged care over people with disability in residential care, stating that the evidence globally shows that older Australians were more at risk than people with disability.
Counsel Assisting Eastman asked Ms Edwards if they ever investigated if the de-prioritisation was discriminatory towards people with disability, which Ms Edwards said they did not.
Additionally, Ms McAlpine raised concerns during her submission about all the released information about the rollout and COVID-19, stating that the information has not been adequate for people with intellectual disability.
Easy Read material released by the Government over the COVID-19 crisis has not been meeting the requirements of Easy Read documents with a lot of the language complex and convoluted.
Ms McAlpine also stressed that the Government should be consulting with people with intellectual disability during the creation of Easy Read documents, and shouldn't be providing her the materials to check a day before they post the information on the Department website.
People with disability left behind
A number of witnesses with disability appeared at the hearing explaining their experiences with the rollout and how worried they have been over the course of the initiative.
Clifford Stephens appeared with his son, Christian, a person with disability, and he explained how their GP was unable to give them information or help with getting the vaccine and instead referred them to another clinic.
Mr Stephens described it as being "left on our own" when finding information for Christian on what they should do.
"There are people with disability who don't have family support and sometimes they can't even give consent. People with disability are being left to their own devices and very often they don't have their own devices," says Mr Stephens.
"...It really seems to me that we've been let down by the Federal Government and State Government."
Another witness going by the pseudonym, Faith, a disability support worker, explained that as a solo operator she has had no contact from any Government officials about the vaccine and had to refer to the NDIS and news outlets for updates.
A young group of self-advocates with intellectual disability experienced similar issues, saying that they all want the vaccine, however, they are nervous because of the overwhelming amount of information and misinformation about the vaccines.
Uli Kaplan says he was frustrated with the Government for continuously saying they have been the best country for stopping COVID but are failing at getting the vaccine out to vulnerable people.
"Throw politics out the window, stop saying we are going to be the best country and we are doing better than this and that. Just give us the vaccine, I am sitting here nervous not having it," says Mr Kaplan.
"I spent three and a half months locked in my unit, for my own safety, because I had four [COVID] cases next door in my house. Throw politics aside, you are saying you are rolling it out. It's gone from the end of the year to the end of next year. I am not going to crucify anyone for that, just do your job. I want the vaccine.
"...Normal people have the right to the vaccine, and we have the right to a vaccine. You need to understand when you are talking to us about this, this is stressful. Extraordinarily stressful."
The next Disability Royal Commission hearing will be held from 24-28 May in Homebush, New South Wales, using a case study to investigate prevention and response to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in disability services. To watch the hearing, head to the DRC website.