Can the Disability Royal Commission deliver real change?

by | Sep 27, 2023 | Ability News, Disability Sector, Government

Today, after four and a half years, 32 major hearings, 1,785 private sessions and receiving nearly 8,000 submissions, the Disability Royal Commission is handing its final report to the Governor General. This is an important moment – but what comes next will be critical.

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Fourteen detailed Issues Papers have already been released examining topics as diverse as ‘restrictive practices’, the experiences of specific communities, and violence and abuse of people with disability. 

In her first report for AbilityNews our Special Correspondent Catherine McGrath examines a single week’s hearings of the Commission in Canberra . . . 

Shocking stories of neglect, abuse and exploitation emerged from almost every hearing of the Royal Commission. These dominated the headlines and horrific reports forced their way onto the television news bulletins at night. Just as important and far more wide reaching however was other, critical work being done that didn’t make the headlines. 

The Canberra hearing in June 2022, for example, was dedicated to the topic of inclusive education. This examined structural barriers preventing inclusion in areas as vital as education and employment. 

This raises a huge question that will only be answered when we’ve had a chance to see the Commission’s final report. Is it determined to change the way things have happened in the past? And will it do so by recommending structures to support equitable access to a schooling system known to regularly let down students with disability?

In his opening address Commissioner Ronald Sackville explained that education is a priority topic for the Commission.

‘The choice of education as the subject matter of the hearing reflected its profound importance to the life experiences of people with disability.’

‘As of today, the Royal Commission has received 4,677 submissions. Of these, 21 per cent discuss issues relating to education and learning for children and young people with disability. Certain themes recur in the submissions, such as unwillingness or inability of some schools and educators to provide students with disability with reasonable adjustments to facilitate these studies.’

The hearing looked at the issue of ‘choice’ with advocates concluding, in reality, few choices were possible. The choice apparently on offer; separate ‘disabled focused’ schooling or ‘mainstreaming’.

At the Canberra hearings, advocates Catherine McAlpine of Inclusion Australia and Mary Sayers of Children and Young People with Disability Australia said one system (mainstream) is usually under-resourced and the other system, specialised disability schools have resources at a time when most are looking for integration.

Catherine McAlpine testified that families are often pushed away from mainstream options. 


Catherine McAlpine grasps a microphone and says people with disability have not been consulted about the NDIS reforms.

Catherine McAlpine (photo courtesy Inclusion Australia)

‘Families say over and over again it didn’t feel like a choice.’

Advocates are pushing for inclusive education where children with disability can receive high quality education with their non-disabled peers.

Mary Sayers asked the Commission to picture what the future might look like.

‘What we’re hoping is that we can imagine a future where, in 10 years’ time, from birth or when developmental delay is first identified, that families are encouraged and supported to strive for inclusion in their local community and make early childhood education and care the first step towards an inclusive education alongside their nondisabled peers.’

‘In 10 years’ time we don’t need to separate students with disability into special schools or units because every school is inclusive and has universal design for learning.’

‘We want students with disability not to be seen as a problem.’ 

Mary Sayers leans forward as she says she worries children with disability are physically pushed and handled at schools.

Children and Young People with Disability Australia CEO Mary Sayers (photo courtesy SBS)

‘Young people in our work tell us all the time about the deeply seated ableism that comes from some of these (outdated) attitudes. And we want families of nondisabled children to understand that all students do better when there is full inclusion and that we have high expectations for all students and that all students can flourish with the right adjustments and supports.’

‘Students leave their school education with options for education, employment, post-school employment. That is what we need to think about, not the flawed systems that we currently have.’

She said currently limitations start at the pre-school stages.

‘We know early childhood is a critical sliding door period for helping decide where you’ll send your child to school. And some of that preliminary data is quite telling in terms of these sliding door moments. 

‘From the respondents that we’ve heard from so far, 19 per cent have been refused enrolment. 31 per cent had been excluded from events. 19 per cent had experienced restrictive practices – and remember we’re talking about early childhood education here. 26 per cent had been offered less hours than other children.’