Discrimination of individuals with disability will not cease with out ‘transformation’ of society, says human rights medalist

Ending violence, abuse and discrimination against Australians with disabilities will not be achieved without a radical overhaul of society and our understanding of the human condition, says senior disability rights attorney, Rosemary Kayess.

It is not enough to tinker with the margins of attempts to improve the National Disability Scheme’s service delivery, the University of New South Wales scientist said, calling instead for leadership to remove systems that put people with disabilities in relation to schooling and life circumstances separate from society and jobs.

“It’s not a quick fix, it’s a major social transformation,” said Ms. Kayess, speaking over a video conference during the Australian Human Rights Commission’s annual speech on International Human Rights Day Thursday.

“There is nothing to suggest that we are taking the necessary leadership steps to bring about significant change. If we keep trying to fix the systems, we will get nowhere.”

The ongoing royal commission on the mistreatment and neglect of people with disabilities has revealed a number of harrowing experiences of discrimination against people with disabilities in Australia. Ms. Kayess described the evidence so far as “things we expected”.

Ms. Kayess, who is the first Australian woman to serve on the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, specifically discussed the educational system in which students with disabilities in technical schools or units are kept away from their non-disabled peers within general education.

This separation has often been further anchored throughout their lives, including through group home environments where a number of people with disabilities live together in sheltered accommodation, and through employment, particularly through supported work facilities.

“Ableism creates a society where people with disabilities are not included, they are not part of the human family,” she said, adding that segregated accommodation helps encourage abuse.

“We also saw during the COVID crisis earlier this year that people with disabilities still went to sheltered workshops when physical distance was problematic, which increased the risk of virus transmission.”

In April, disability advocates raised concerns about the continued operation of assisted work facilities after a worker at a Western Australian facility that employed more than 450 people tested positive for COVID-19.

On the broader impact of COVID-19, Ms. Kayess asked why people with disabilities were not included in the initial pandemic response despite being a risk group if they contract the virus.

The “significant time lag” meant that many people with disabilities and their carers did not have access to adequate personal protective equipment, even though they were unable to distance themselves socially.

A report from the Royal Commission’s fifth public hearing specifically addressing the COVID-19 response found that “no Australian government agency … has made significant efforts to assist people with disabilities or during the period to consult their representative organizations “early stages of the pandemic.

As a result, there were no guidelines that “were specifically tailored to the needs of people with disabilities and the challenges they face” and which for many people had “serious adverse consequences”, states the end last Report published monthly.

“People with disabilities are not necessarily naturally at risk. It is the inequality and discrimination they experience that creates this vulnerability, ”said Ms. Kayess.

“If we want to rebuild better, we have to reduce this inequality and discrimination.”

Ms. Kayess was awarded the Human Rights Medal 2019 for her lifelong work for disability rights.

The 2020 speech, held every year on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was presented online for the first time in history.

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