The handing down of the Disability Royal Commission’s landmark report represents a line in the sand for ending the widespread discrimination and violence that people with a disability experience every day in Australia.
Through almost 2000 public and private hearings, people with disability and carers delivered at times harrowing evidence, painting a disturbing picture of widespread violence, discrimination and human rights violations.
Violence against all women is a national emergency, but the Commission’s final report demonstrates that for women living with disability who face both sexism and ableism, the rates of abuse are alarmingly higher.
Research shows that 65 per cent of women with disability have experienced violence in their lifetime. They are also twice as likely as women without disability to experience physical and sexual violence. Shockingly, the commission found that 90 per cent of women with intellectual disability had experienced sexual abuse.
Through the Commission, we heard thousands of shocking stories, including “Chloe”, a woman living with cerebral palsy who was raped, physically assaulted, and “treated like a dog” by a paid personal assistant. She fell pregnant but lost the baby in one of his attacks in 2016.
Women also shared their experiences of online and street harassment, coercive and controlling behaviours by paid and unpaid carers, intimate partner violence, workplace discrimination, removal of reproductive choices, and institutional violence. Too often these experiences of violence were excused, minimised or ignored.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, LGBTIQ+ women and women from non-English speaking backgrounds gave evidence revealing how sexism, ablism, racism and/or homophobia combine to amplify their risk of violence and systemic discrimination. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women from non-English speaking backgrounds were far less likely to receive NDIS supports compared to English speaking white women.
For many, the Commission was the first time they felt heard, and their strength and resilience shone through. People shared their desire to have choices and independence, to be able to live, learn and play, to be respected and valued and to contribute. And most of all, they shared their desire to be safe. Something we all want and expect in our lives.
Positively, the 222 recommendations made by the Commission provide a roadmap for creating this safety. The recommendations include eliminating institutional discrimination, the likes of which has allowed ableism, sexism and disrespect to flourish and has led to the unacceptably high levels of violence against people with disability, including women and girls.
Our Watch’s and Women With Disabilities Victoria’s Changing the Landscape Framework outlines how discrimination, disrespect and violence against women with disability is caused by attitudes of ableism, overlayed with sexism. The solution? Equality and respect for all women, including those with disability.
The Commission’s final report outlines the key role of governments and policymakers to prevent violence through policy, legislative and regulatory reform, funding commitments, monitoring and reporting on progress and modelling best practice standards.
If implemented, these changes will provide a voice to people with disability, increase their visibility in leadership and build respect, inclusion and equality. It will change attitudes and dramatically reduce the risk of violence against women and girls with disability.
But it is not just up to institutions to create the change required to end this violence. At an individual level, change looks like challenging ableist attitudes – such as a belief that women and girls with disability need to be protected, or excusing a partner’s or carer’s abuse because they are ‘burnt-out’.
It looks like workplaces championing equality and increasing the number of women with disability in leadership roles, schools being accessible and inclusive, media amplifying the voices and stories of women and girls with disability, and so much more.
This is not just about ending violence against women and girls with disability, but also creating a society where all women are valued, respected and have equal opportunities to participate in our society.
The reality for women and girls living with disability is confronting. We must ensure that their testimony and the Commission findings are not left on the shelf. It is time for action and concerted effort to prevent violence against women with disability.
These recommendations are only just the beginning of the change that is needed.
Australia has listened, now it is time to act.
This article was first published in The Canberra Times and other Australian Community Media outlets.