On Friday April 5, 2019, the Prime Minister announced the Royal Commission into the violence, neglect, abuse and exploitation suffered by people with disability.

In 12-months, one in 18 people living with a disability experienced physical and sexual violence, and one in six First Nations people living with disabilities have suffered physical violence.

Chair of the Commission, Ronald Sackville stated that the inquiry had a special task to expose the realities of violence, abuse and neglect experienced by First Nations – and reach those within isolated areas.

According to data compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the First Peoples Disability Network Australia (FPDN), First Nations people are 1.7 times more likely than their non-First Nations counterparts to live with a disability.

FPDN Deputy CEO, June Riemer said there are a range of reasons which contribute to why more First Nations people live with disability.

“In traditional groups and languages, there isn’t a word for disability. People, not always but in most groups, looked after one another. If someone was born with an impairment you just went along with the mob and you were looked after.”

“In colonial areas, our groups were marginalised, put on the edges of towns – not being allowed to work or have an education. We were at a disadvantage, if you were a person with a disability you were fighting alongside everyone else,” Ms Riemer said.

Ms Riemer said service systems and Indigenous Australians didn’t connect well as they were government-based initiatives.

“If it was to do with government, it meant they had business with your family and sometimes people were scared to bring forward, for example a mother with a child who had a disability, because she would be then seen as a bad mother.”

“Generally, our mob has never connected well with the service systems because it has never been culturally appropriate. The general block funding around service system support was that people worked nine to five but what if you needed help after five? Or if there are geographical boundaries, if you lived outside of a serviced area there was no flexibility to include you.”

“It’s only been in recent times that there has been that larger disability focus in general so most of the programs across different states came under the umbrella more so of ageing services – so there weren’t appropriate supports available.”

FPDN had consulted with government before the Royal Commission to assist in the creation of the Terms of Reference. The organisation has also worked with Ms Andrea Mason OAM – the only First Nations Commissioner appointed on the inquiry.

“We have great faith in her, we have met with her many times in the last period. She is a very strong, formidable woman so I think having her there, we are quite comfortable with that,” Ms Riemer said.

Ms Riemer is concerned about the ability of the Commission to provide safe spaces for those sharing their stories to confide and rest after revealing their traumatic experiences.

“We have a long way to go, it’s a horse before the cart scenario. They are rolling out these workshops, but haven’t looked at how people need to be appropriately supported,” Ms Riemer said.

“People are bringing up vulnerable experiences and what support is after that? They haven’t talked about, or funded appropriately, healing programs and support for before or after.”

FPDN has fought for many years for justice and hope this is the right step to finding a pathway to the future.

“I think it’s like many of these Commissions, the story needs to be told, it needs to be heard with the public to change people’s thinking and how they look at people with disabilities,” Ms Riemer said.

“These people are like you or I, they are a human being, they have wants and needs and should be supported to the best of their ability. They are not second rate citizens and should not be discarded as they don’t have value. The Commission plays a role in getting these stories out for change.”