One yr after the loss of life of Ann Marie Smith, individuals dwelling with disabilities are nonetheless ready for significant change
The death of Ann Marie Smith on April 6, 2020 shocked the nation, sparking a task force and a series of state and federal investigations. And yet the feeling remains that systemic change could be years away. This is of little comfort to those who continue to suffer every day as they try to navigate the maze of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). This anniversary should be a wake-up call, especially for State MPs across Australia to address the ongoing plight of people with disabilities.
Ann Marie Smith’s only NDIS-funded supporter has since been charged with manslaughter. Not only is this case ongoing, the service provider’s attorneys have suspended the process for an additional six months, asserting professional legal privilege on any material that the police have seized as part of their investigation.
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ABC Radio Adelaide recently unveiled a segment on its morning breakfast show that explores what has changed for people with disabilities in the past twelve months. The segment played an excerpt from a podcast series by the South Australian disability association Purple Orange, in which the experiences of another South Australian under the pseudonym “Nat” were described.
A year ago, the death of Ann Marie Smith shocked us all. But it wasn’t until this week that Purple Orange heard from ‘Nat’ who told us she was scared of being the next Ann Marie Smith because she continued to receive insufficient support.
Listen to their story and share it
– JFA Purple Orange (@JFAPurpleOrange) April 5, 2021
Nat remembered the difficulty she had in finding suitable support workers – including female workers to help her with her personal care. Due to the nature of Nat’s disabilities, she needs two workers to get her from her wheelchair to her bed. However, she spoke of occasions when her service provider was unable to provide such assistance despite his participation in NDIS. This meant that she was sometimes confined to a wheelchair for days. In a written statement to ABC Radio Adelaide, State Secretary for Human Services Michelle Lensink confirmed that she referred Nat’s claims to the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) after being notified. While this is certainly good news for Nat, individual claims shouldn’t have to be made through the media or against individual politicians for change to occur.
Since the death of Ann Marie Smith, other examples have emerged of people with disabilities who have died as a result of inadequate care. This problem is not unique to South Australia. For example, we heard about four-year-old Willow Dunn in Queensland with Down syndrome and David Harris, who lives in New South Wales, with schizophrenia. In the case of David Harris, his family has asked the NSW coroner to inquire about his death for over two years. The evidence of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disabilities received by the Royal Commission has shown the full extent of this problem.
While news of the nature and circumstances of Ann Marie Smith’s death sparked multiple investigations and a task force investigation, Robbi Williams, CEO of Purple Orange, told ABC Radio Adelaide: “Since the death of Ms. Smith has been the disabled generally nothing improved. ”Williams also highlighted the fact that the exchange of information between the Commonwealth and government agencies remains incoherent.
Although the NDIS is federal in size, funding, and administration, state parliaments retain the moral responsibility to legislate for peace, order, and good government for their people. This should include the implementation of a system that ensures adequate care for potentially vulnerable people and is not based solely on voluntary community programs. Our federal system does not allow the removal of state responsibility for laws in matters that are not exclusive to the Commonwealth, including disability and health policies. Even if a problem arises regarding inconsistent state and federal oversight laws, the Australian Constitution includes an inconsistency mechanism – it provides for federal law to throw up trumps to correct the extent of a legal conflict. This means that both the state and federal parliaments can enact laws on disability and health policy.
Systemic change requires our policymakers to stop passing the federal-state money on as an excuse for inaction. We need a holistic, rights-based approach to systems and systems that protect people with disabilities. These reforms are required at the country level and must complement the federal systems.
Peta Spyrou is a PhD student at the University of Adelaide Law School. She is writing her dissertation on Disability Discrimination in Education.