In Australia, 4.4 million people live with a disability, 2.4 million of whom are under the age of 65. Some 365,000 people with permanent and severe disabilities are participants in the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
So what has been the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on people with disability?
That’s what the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability is aiming to find out, with the first of four days of hearings kicking off in Sydney on Tuesday.
The figures shared above were delivered by Chair, Ronald Sackville AO QC, and Senior Counsel Assisting, Kate Eastman SC, as she made the opening address.
It is the the fifth public hearing of this Royal Commission, and will examine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people with disability and the response of the Commonwealth Government to the pandemic as it has affected people with disability.
“In one sense we are all in this together,” Eastman said in her address. “But we have not all been affected equally.”
“We have been made all too aware of the terrible toll of the pandemic on people in aged care homes, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales. What has happened and regrettably is continuing is a national tragedy.”
Eastman spoke from the main hearing room within the premises occupied by the Fair Work Commission in Sydney.
The hearings will see a number of witnesses share their stories and give evidence about events and issues that are relevant to the Disability Royal Commission’s terms of reference; which guide the commission on what to look at as part of their inquiry. Due to the restrictions to public gatherings caused by the pandemic, virtual hearings will be conducted throughout the four-day procedure.
“The impact of the pandemic on people with disability may not have received the same level of media coverage or public attention as the loss of life in aged care facilities,” Eastman continued. “That does not diminish the severity or significance of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people with disability.”
“Whatever else may be uncertain about this pandemic, it was clear from the outset that people with disability were likely to be disproportionately affected when compared with people without disability. People with disability often have multiple health conditions (co-morbidities) or chronic conditions such as reduced lung capacity that increase the risk of infection and the chances of a COVID-19 infection proving serious. Many live in segregated settings or are dependent on carers or service providers for the essentials of life. Many are people with cognitive disability for whom disruption or lack of continuity in their lives can create high levels of anxiety and stress.”
Eastman is joined by fellow Senior Counsel Dr Kerri Mellifont QC, who is participating by audio-visual link from Brisbane. In total, 1,268 submissions were received, 9 issues papers were published and 254 responses to issues papers were delivered.
In Sydney, as Eastman made her address, she was accompanied by Commissioner Barbara Bennett PSM. Eastman described the harrowing stories from the calls to the Commission’s hotline, saying, “We have heard too, of the problems of isolation, lack of access to information and loss of services experienced by people with disability from First Nations and culturally and linguistically diverse communities.”
“In the early weeks of the pandemic we received numerous calls to our hotline, and submissions that provided often harrowing accounts of the experiences of people with disability. We were told of sudden isolation and denial of social contacts; abrupt interruptions to or loss of essential support services; an inability to access medications, health care or even adequate supplies of food; a lack of protective equipment for carers and people with disability themselves, thereby exposing them to the risk of infection; financial hardship; and extremely high levels of stress and anxiety among people with disability and their families.”
“These accounts of the impact of COVID-19 on people with disability demanded an urgent response from the Royal Commission. We therefore published a Statement of Concern on 26 March 2020 drawing attention to the key areas of concern and calling on governments to develop specific strategies to ensure the well-being of people with disability during the crisis.”
“The Royal Commission then released an Issues Paper on Emergency Planning and Responses which pointed to the threats to health and safety when people with disability are overlooked or left behind in emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 60 responses, many very detailed, have been received to the questions asked in the Issues Papers. In addition, the Royal Commission has received many submissions raising issues about the adequacy of measures taken to preserve the safety and wellbeing of people with disability during the pandemic crisis.”
She further explained how the submissions and responses to these Issues Paper have informed the content of this hearing.
Eastman also addressed the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). She introduced Catalina Devandas Aguilar, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of People with Disabilities.
“Article 11 of the CRPD obliges States Parties, of which Australia is one, to take. In addition, Article 25 requires States Parties to recognise that people with disability have the right to the enjoyment of the highest obtainable standard of health, without discrimination on the basis of disability,” she said.
“These provisions have to be read with Article 4(3) of the CRPD which obliges States Parties, in decision-making processes concerning issues relating to people with disability, to consult closely with and actively involve people with disability through their representative organisations.”
“These are important obligations which Australia, under International law, must fulfil.”
Finally, Eastman laid out the primary objectives of the Hearings:
(i) To hear people with disability and their families recount their own experiences during the pandemic. Some stories will be distressing, but others will recount positive experiences in the face of serious challenges.
(ii) To examine the response of the Commonwealth to the risks to health, safety and wellbeing of people with disability, tested against its responsibilities under International law.
(iii) To identify measures the Commonwealth should have taken to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of people with disability during the pandemic but which it did not take. We shall also be concerned to identify measures that have had a positive impact on people with disability.
(iv) Most importantly, to recommend measures that will protect the health, safety and wellbeing of people with disability, both during the remainder of this pandemic and in future emergencies.
“We do not intend to wait until the Final Report is completed to prepare a Report arising from this hearing,” she concluded.
“The current emergency may last a very long time. If new or revised laws, policies or practices are needed, subject to the Royal Commission observing the requirement of procedural fairness, we owe it to people with disability to put forward our recommendations as soon as possible.”