Hear us: end the segregation, end the exclusion of people with disability

It is time to honour our fundamental human rights. It is time to respect the stories we have shared. Hear us. The time for justice, for healing to begin, is now. We demand nothing less.

Nicole Lee

When the Disability Royal Commission was announced more than four years ago, I was in the gallery at Parliament House. I stood alongside people with disability, advocates and campaigners, united in the hope that our right as disabled people to live free from violence and neglect and to be included and equal under the law, would be recognised and that governments would be mobilised to turn our hopes into reality.

Since then, thousands of stories have been shared through the Royal Commission, including my own. Harrowing stories of sexual assaults, abuse in group homes and violence in public places. Of disabled people being shut out of classrooms, community and support. Stories that came as a shock to the majority of Australians. But stories that, to the 4.4 million Australians with disability have somehow become our expectation. Stories that took courage, resilience and ongoing pain to share with the Australian public.

The Royal Commission has shone a glaring spotlight on the appalling discrimination and harm that we face when we are excluded from mainstream schools, workplaces, housing and health care and denied access to public spaces. When ableism reigns and barriers are placed in the way of our participation, inclusion and visibility in society. It is a spotlight that we cannot now turn off or away from.

As we wait for the final report, I have a fervent plea – not just for me, but for the millions of people with disability in this country who have been marginalised, sidelined and pushed to the edges of society for far too long. And particularly for those individuals who, like me, have courageously shared their experiences during the Royal Commission. We are calling for action – national, planned and funded action – to put an end to the segregation of people with disability in Australia, once and for all.

Action that will ensure our inclusion in schools – not ‘special schools’, but mainstream schools – so we can get an education alongside our peers. To ensure our inclusion in the workplace so we can get a fair day’s pay. To ensure we have choice and control over where we live, who we live with, how we’re supported and how we choose to live our lives.

Let me be clear, segregation is not just a form of discrimination, it is a breeding ground for violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. Australia’s laws, policies, frameworks and community attitudes perpetuate this segregation, violating our human rights at every turn. This is an uncomfortable reality that government and society must confront.

Throughout the Royal Commission we’ve told our stories, shared our pain and our first-hand experiences. But sharing stories is not enough.

We want the hard truths that have been our lives to be heard, but most importantly we need our stories to be a catalyst for change. The systemic drivers of the violence against us must be confronted, and both government and society must change.

Our demands for an end to segregation need to be acted on. And we need a response from government and society that will guarantee the next generation of disabled people does not experience the violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation we’ve had to endure.

We need this response to ensure our right to participate fully in Australian life. We need equality before the law for all disabled people; we need to transform our housing, education and employment systems, ensuring they are genuinely inclusive and accessible; we need safeguards to make sure the will and preferences of people with disability are respected, and to protect our right to refuse support, change support or end support relationships; we need genuine choice and control over our lives.

When the Final Report from the Disability Royal Commission is handed down later today, the abuse, neglect and exploitation experienced by me, and thousands of other Australians, will be laid bare. It is now Australia’s responsibility to ensure a response that prevents this abuse from continuing by not shying away from the uncomfortable reality that has been our lives for far to long. With true commitment from governments, not just for today but for as long as it takes, we can – and hopefully will – end segregation, uphold the rights of people with disability and shape a community that is free from violence.

It is time for action and real solutions. It is time to honour our fundamental human rights. It is time to respect the stories we have shared. Hear us. The time for justice, for healing to begin, is now. We demand nothing less.

First published by Canberra Times as “Nicole Lee | Segregation of Australian people with disability must end” on 28 September 2023