Disability Royal Commission listens to realities of First Nations disability

The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability is traveling across the nation collecting stories.

Kronie and Ngaanyatjarra woman from Central Australia, Commissioner Andrea Mason, sat down with NIT to talk about the progress the Commission has made so far in uncovering the realities, particularly the realities for First Nations peoples with disability.

In February, three commissioners spent time in Darwin and Alice Springs holding meetings with organisations.

“I am very aware, particularly in the NT, that we have had lots of interest in the Disability Royal Commission and people telling their stories. What struck me was in the Territory [there] was a real interest for people to be ready to have the conversations even before we arrived,” Mason said.

“It is a real feature of how community sectors work, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities work, is that we have to find a way of making sure we are maximising time and resources for the benefit of our community.”

Mason highlighted the point that there is much conversation about how these stories turn into productive processes.

“Aboriginal people are the most researched people on the planet, we have a lot of Royal Commissions at the moment, so we are conscious of a lot of requests from community organisations to what we put into these processes,” she said.

“But I’m also very much aware that of all of the groups within community, First Nations people with disability are the most marginalised group in Australia.”

“Everyone is stepping up really wanting to make sure that in the record of the Royal Commission people have their stories told which is really wonderful. The first thing is opening up that conversation and saying, ‘Tell us your story’.”

Whilst in Sydney, the Commission heard from Wiradjuri woman and former Dubbo resident, Narelle Reynolds. Reynolds spoke about the challenges she faced in seeking support and healthcare for her sons who live with intellectual disability.

Reynolds spoke of her personal agency and determination to provide the best life to her children, that continues beyond her own. She also addressed that access support is not an easy, straight line.

“There are so many factors that have gone into [that], her having to relocate to different places to find the experts and sometimes that has often bought her and her family significant hardship,” Mason said.

“She is an extraordinary woman, raised on a mission many years ago with family but that was not a limitation for her.

“It certainly left a lot of people who had heard her evidence really just realising it isn’t one-size-fits-all. That Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we are listening, and we want the full benefits of rights.”

“There is definitely a passionate conversation that talks about the fact that one size doesn’t fit all … Different locations and different cultural governance, different histories around the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, looking at a place-based response in terms of, what happens here? Are there lessons learnt? Is there a different model in different places because of circumstances?”

“We talk to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we’re saying, tell us your story. We aren’t boxing in, we aren’t focusing on one area, or a particular policy area, we’re just listening.”

“What we are hearing is the life story, as Narelle’s evidence told, she was giving a life story of the challenges of being able to support her children with disability and what that meant as they grew and started to move into each different stage of life.

“We have to be looking at it from that very broad life lens because if we just look at it in one aspect and not necessarily what it means in transition into other stages of life; people may have extraordinary support at one point in their life but then have failed in other areas.”

The Commission received 7,000 submissions, of which 27 were from First Nations people. Mason is asking those who have witnessed violence, neglect, exploitation or abuse in any sphere of life to get in contact to share their story.

“The stories are the building blocks towards telling the truth and for people to understand the recommendations. The story of First Nations people with disability is so central to this Royal Commission, because in my view, if we can change and transform for the better in the hardest of places, we make it better for all places.”

The Commission is having a First Nations public hearing in May in Alice Springs.

Mason will draw upon her experience in Central Australia at the NPY Women’s Council.

“[That role] crystallised for me that, we as First Nations people understand that within our own communities, within our own family structures, we have the knowledge to maintain good order and peaceful government and governance.

“We come from a very strong place of wanting to lead, but also we understand we are in a system that requires change.

“I’m very encouraged by the smarts of our First Nations leaders and families and Elders and that gives me confidence in hearing those difficult conversations because I know, there is a way through to the other side if we empower the leadership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for this better life, something better for our community members with disability.”

By Rachael Knowles

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