Seven months after Prime Minister Scott Morrison established the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, the inquiry has heard from communities across the nation.

As noted by Chair of the Commission, Ronald Sacksville, the inquiry has a responsibility to address and expose the realities of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation experienced by First Nations peoples in Australia.

In a 12-month period, one in 18 non-Indigenous peoples living with disability experience physical or sexual violence, whilst that figure increases significantly to one in six for First Nations peoples.

Holding space for mob, Andrea Mason OAM, is the only First Nations Commissioner appointed to the inquiry. A proud Kronie and Ngaanyatjarra woman from Central Australia, Mason has strong ties to the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara communities.

“I’ve been working in the areas of human services and social services for many years and or the last 10 years prior to being appointed to the Royal Commission, I was the Chief Executive Officer of NPY Women’s Council in the Northern Territory – it’s a tristate organisation, which works in WA, NT and SA,” Mason said.

“The first project the women advocated for was a disability project back in 1983. Right from the beginning, the desert women acknowledged the high level of disadvantage in their community and wanted more support for their community members with disability.”

With these experiences guiding her and a dedicated team, Mason has confidence she can be strong within her role.

“I feel that one of the experiences and the learnings I have gained in my time … have given me real insight not only to the powerful resilience we have in our communities and looking for better solutions for our own mob, but also to advocate for change at a local, regional and national level.

“We have a number of First Nations peoples working within the Commission who are doing incredible work and are really helping to make that connection with the community.”

Mason noted that the experiences the inquiry aims to address occur in many realms of a person’s life.

“The stories of First Nations people with disability and their experiences of violence, abuse [and] neglect exceeds expectation across many settings so we are talking about justice, education, health, housing and other areas,” Mason said.

“It is the unwritten chapter in our history of Australia and also in the First Nations rights movement history. We don’t have that chapter written.”

“We know it must be written and this is an opportunity for First Nations peoples to have their voice, and voice their truth about what has been happening today … and in the past in relation to how First Nations peoples with disability are experiencing really serious levels of abuse, neglect and exploitation and violence.”

Whilst Mason acknowledges that there is some reluctance for victims and families to talk about what is going on behind closed doors, she encourages those to come forward and voice their story.

“We want community to put their trust in us … we want them to know they can come to us and speak.

“Our commitment is to the community. We know there are safe places within these communities where those with disability do go because they trust people and the certainty and consistency of which they are supported.

“We’re wanting to work with our wonderful community controlled service providers and others who are working on the ground … so we can capture those stories.

“Along with the engagement forums which have already started, we’re going to have information sessions for community to come, listen and hear.”

Guided by her passion for her people and her drive for change, Mason is confident the inquiry will improve lives.

“We know that there are around 7.3 percent of our First Nations people with either a severe or profound disability, that’s around 60,000 people. And when we compare that to the wider community, it compares 5.8 percent, a greater concentration of people in need.

“I’ve seen and participated in enquiries and reviews over the years and what I know is in our community people are always gathering stories; in their everyday work and their family life.

“What I do know is that what is happening in our community to people with disability in the areas of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, in many cases it’s an open secret of the abuse experiences.

“Our job is to build that trust and to make the engagement as easy as possible to share those stories. Those stories are important because it is the truth of what is happening with people but it is also giving us the building blocks for the case for change in many areas across Australia – so we can do everything possible to reduce every opportunity for our people to be excused from being exposed from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in the future.”

By Rachael Knowles