Disability inquiry begins with harrowing stories, but advocates fear it isn’t equipped to succeed

Luke Henriques-Gomes
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Some in the disability community have been waiting years for this week to come, yet it still arrived too soon.

As the disability royal commission landed in Townsville for its first public hearings, it was trailed by some advocates who argue the process is, if not set up to fail, at least not exactly equipped to succeed.

Those critics, such as the Greens senator Jordon Steele-John, say people with disabilities have not been given enough time and support to safely and effectively engage with the commission.

Steele-John was in Townsville when the commission chair, Ronald Sackville, appeared to return serve as he officially opened the hearings: “Unfortunately there are one or two commentators whose contributions often appear calculated to discourage people from telling their stories to the commission and to increase their levels of anxiety.”

It was against this tense backdrop that the three-year, $527m inquiry began. Its first four days were dedicated to education and learning in Queensland, which last year became the first state to embrace an “inclusive education” policy.

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“It’s not a matter of happenstance that education and learning has been selected as the first topic for hearing in public hearings,” said counsel assisting the commission Kerri Mellifont.

“Education is a key enabler of other rights including those related to work, housing, political participation and access to justice. Education sets the scene.”

And set the scene it did.

Across four days the commissioners heard harrowing stories from two parents of students with disabilities. They also heard from experts and teachers in Queensland’s system and the state’s education department.

The Queensland mother of a 13-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome was the first witness. Known as witness AAA, she described her daughter as a “great learner” who was “happy” and “independent”. She does have vision and intellectual impairments but she can also cook half a dozen meals from a recipe and do her own washing.

When her daughter reached year two at school, things changed. Witness AAA became emotional as she told how her daughter became “petrified” of her teacher. The teacher regularly yelled at the child, forced her to sit on a bathmat, and once dragged her down a flight of stairs.

After three years the family was left with no choice but to withdraw her from the school.

It was not a unique story. Mellifont read from submissions that spoke to the horror inflicted on some children who had faced bullying, harassment and exclusion in mainstream schools. One 10-year-old girl with Asperger syndrome was hit over the head, pushed from a pier and began hiding in a garbage bin to avoid bullying.

The disability royal commission chair, Ronald Sackville. Photograph: Cameron Laird/AAP

But it was not always about abuse. Some parents simply could not find a school that would accept their child due to an unofficial practice called “gatekeeping”.

Dr Lisa Bridle, a disabilities expert, told the commission: “The things that are said to families are either, ‘We don’t cater for students with this level of disability’, ‘We won’t have the resources; we can’t ensure that your child will be safe if they enrol at this school. You will find the resources are somewhere else.’ ”

Another witness, known as AAC, spoke about her experience putting five children with disabilities through the education system. She described her eldest son who has autism as “gifted” but said the teachers “weren’t really of the understanding that he required adjustments”.

“The bullying was so extreme that he actually took a knife to school because he was that scared,” she said.

The abuse experienced by the witnesses’s children occurred in mainstream schools. But the existence – and ethics – of special schools appears likely to feature as a key question the commission may seek to answer.

Bridle argues, as do peak bodies People With Disability Australia and Children and Young People with Disability Australia, that these schools are discriminatory. Some parents have described them as segregation, but others say they support their existence.

“What if there are parents who want to have a separate school for their children?” Sackville asked Bridle.

She replied: “I absolutely understand why families would want to have their child at a special school … I think when families do not feel their child will be welcomed, they don’t feel their child will be safe, they don’t feel their child will be kind of supported, the schools are set up in rigid ways so they don’t think their child’s sensory needs will be kind of accommodated.”

The Queensland teacher’s union backed the special schools. “If you make blanket decision to take away special schools as an option, it denies the system and parents and those ­students one of the suite of ­options for ­providing effective education in a state school system,” its president, Kevin Bates, said.

Teachers had it tough, he said. “The expectations of a single teacher are often beyond the ­capacity of a single human being to deliver.”

Under the Queensland government’s policy, schools are told to introduce students with disabilities into the classrooms. In a session with specialist disability teachers, the commission was told at least one school was actively “resisting diversity”.

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But Catherine Morris, head of special education services at Bowen high school, said her school had taken a different approach.

“Every one of those students attends mainstream classrooms,” she said. “Every one of those students accesses the curriculum at their level. Every one of those students receives the support they require for their complex needs.

“They attend all and participate in all school events. And they are definitely valued members of our school community.”

Asked to react to a hypothetical in which special schools were phased out in 15 years, the Queensland’s government’s legal counsel, Kathryn McMillan QC, promised to take the question on notice: “But can I say that one thing that perhaps is troubling, if I can put it this way at this stage, is there really hasn’t been any other side of the debate, if I can put it this way, about special schools.”

There were no witnesses with disabilities to give evidence in the first week and that was not lost on the community. Responding to Sackville’s apparent criticism at “commentators” like him, Steele-John told the ABC this week: “I’ve just had a long conversation with a man who would desperately like to give his evidence to the commission but cannot do so yet because there isn’t a pathway to make confidential submissions to the inquiry presently.”

Sackville closed the week’s first hearings with an anecdote. He said one of the disability royal commissioners was riding in a cab this week when the driver, apparently surprised, asked why Townsville was chosen as the site for the first public hearings.

It was no mere random selection. Demographic data shows the region has a relatively high proportion of people with disability. And the locals had shown strong interest in community forums leading up to the first hearings.

“The choice of these locations reflects the national character of our inquiry,” Sackville said. “We intend to go well beyond the capital cities of the eastern states.”

It was a signal that the commission desperately wants to reach out to a disability community that, at least in some quarters, views the way the inquiry has been created with some wariness. If this week is any guide, it won’t be an easy task.

The royal commission will reconvene next month in Melbourne for public hearings into group homes.