The final report of the Disability Royal Commission provides clear direction on arguably the most important reform of all: ending the segregation of people with disability from mainstream society.

The problem is that not all commissioners support that plan. That is a major disappointment for the more than four million Australians who live with disability.

It is frankly bewildering that none of the hearings was focused on the pivotal issue of so-called special schools, despite evidence of higher rates of violence, abuse, ­neglect and exploitation in those schools.

It is unconscionable that despite spending a higher proportion of GDP on disability than most comparable countries, Australia has failed to substantially shift the dial on inclusive education, equitable housing access and meaningful open employment.

The six royal commissioners were divided on this matter and what should be done about it.

All agreed on the importance of inclusion, but only some – notably including the commissioners with disabilities – have ultimately pushed for reform that would phase out segregated services altogether.

The counter-argument, made by commission chair Ronald Sackville KC and commissioner John Ryan, largely rests on the notion that services that separate people with disability from other Australians need not always be bad when they result from informed choices by people with disability and families. This argument effectively gives the government a free swing in opting out of recommendations it thinks are too hard.

If “choice” prevails in these matters, it would be a gross denial of human progress … not to mention a very poor result for children in special schools being taught away from their peers for no educational benefit, or for NDIS participants in group homes whose supposed choice to be there has meant sacrificing any say in who shares their home, thereby exposing them to higher risks of ­violence, abuse and neglect.

Apart from the human rights arguments, limited ambition on these issues will have an economic cost to Australia long-term. Research for the royal commission by consulting firm Taylor Fry estimates the cost of disability violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation is $47bn annually.

Segregation aside, the royal commission report makes wide-ranging recommendations for improvements in everything from employment to justice and domestic violence, to legal reform and experiences of women and First ­Nations people with disability.

It makes many excellent recommendations that demand swift action: on guardianship orders being only a last resort; on tighter regulation of restrictive practices that are still too often used to stop behaviours of concern; and on much-needed reform to the functions of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission.

There are also important recommendations to extend the supports many people with disability need to make decisions at important stages in their life such as ­finishing school or leaving the family home. Enacting these reforms would build on existing momentum and embed already promising initiatives.

Less can be said for the total absence of commentary on public transport.

The OECD says the question of whether children with disabilities are included in or segregated from mainstream schools is primarily “a matter of national policy, in contrast, for instance, to being a parental decision”. The same is true for other settings.

Our world-leading investments in disability will count for little if this opportunity is missed to make bold choices to end segregation and bring people with disability into the mainstream.

Sam Bennett

Disability Program Director
Dr Sam Bennett joined the Grattan Institute as its inaugural Disability Program Director in September 2023. Sam has worked on disability, aged care, and health reforms at a national level for over fifteen years. In his previous role, he led the Policy, Advice and Research Division of the National Disability Insurance Agency, where he shaped and delivered national policy, and implemented the Agency’s Research Strategy.

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