ABC NewsRadio Evenings with Cathy Bell - Interview with Matthew Wright, AFDO CEO


2 December 2015

Cathy: Thanks very much Matthew, but first, why a Royal Commission? Obviously there are many forms an investigation can take. What can a Royal Commission achieve, that another type of inquiry can’t?

Matt: Well a Royal Commission is wide ranging, it can compel witnesses, and provide more support to people with disability, and in many of these cases there’s significant abuse in places like institutions, and it’s very important for an inquiry to be able to talk to all the people involved, and a Royal Commission has the power to do those things.

Cathy: And it would certainly give this issue prominence wouldn’t it. Do you think the broader community is aware of how serious this problem is?

Matt: No I don’t. I think abuse is rife amongst people with disability. It’s common place and it’s systemic. And for those people with disability brave enough to complain, they find the process is broken. People with disability are often not believed and supported when they make a complaint. And whistle blowers who are staff are often targeted to stop, to cease making a complaint. There’s a lack of enforceable complaints process within the system, and reporting of abuse often doesn’t happen for powerless people with disability who are non-verbal.

Cathy: And indeed that was one of the other recommendations of this Senate Inquiry wasn’t it? It was for the establishment of some sort of national system for reporting and investigating violence, abuse and neglect. It will do doubt come as a surprise to many of our listeners that such a system isn’t already in place.

Matt: Yes, yes absolutely and I think that was a great recommendation. I mean there was an example presented to the Senate Inquiry of 200 cases in Queensland, where not one of them got to a prosecution, and I think that’s a demonstration of a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

Cathy: And that must make it very difficult for people with disability who are victims of abuse and neglect, if they feel a) that there is nowhere they can go to make a complaint, and b) if they do complain to someone, they feel that they’re not heard or that it’s not acted on.

Matt: Well there’s a great sense of powerlessness, and abuse is a very serious incident that happens in somebody’s life, and to find that even if you do have the courage to complain, the complaints aren’t followed through or addressed, is something that we should all be concerned about and really want to address.

Cathy: Just give us a sense of some, you mentioned an example a short time ago, just give us a sense of some of the problems that people with disability face. What sort’s of abuse and neglect are we talking about here?

Matt: Well, you know, it’s very wide ranging, so obviously there’s allegations of sexual abuse against people with disability, violence, neglect in terms of service providers and others not attending to the needs of people with disability. I think one of the high profile cases was where a taxi driver was convicted, and when they went back after one person with disability complained, they found that there were a number of other people with disability who had been assaulted as part of that investigation, and that would never have been uncovered if it wasn’t for the one person who complained in the first instance. So, these types of things are horrific and we really need to see some action.

Cathy: And what about financial abuse, does that also occur?

Matt: Absolutely, there’s many cases where people with disability are vulnerable in a whole range of situations where money is stolen and people very close to them in trusted positions have abused people’s finances in the past for sure.

Cathy: Now the recommendation for this Royal Commission would be to look at abuse in institutional and residential settings, but of course this is an issue behind closed doors in private homes as well. How do you tackle that?

Matt: Look I think the main thing to do is to support people with disability to feel confident and able to complain, and one of the most important things that we’ve recommended is to focus on the expansion of the National Disability Advocacy Program. Individual advocates have been critical to bring these issues to light and it’s very important to vulnerable Australians with disability to have support to blow the whistle on abuse, and if you have a strong advocacy program, it doesn’t matter whether the abuse happens in the home or institutions, generally people with disability will get that very critical support that they need.

Cathy: Just explain to us if you can Matthew, what is this advocacy program that you’re talking about? How does that work exactly?

Matt: So this is the one-on-one individual advocates who are out there working at the coal face every day, that build relationships with people with disability, provide support, develop a relationship and understand the person with disability so that they feel confident to disclose this type of information about abuse, and then support the person all the way through the complaint, because many people with disability have decades of experience of not being believed and feeling that the system won’t support them. So that is where it is so important to have an advocate that you can trust, working side by side to help progress a complaint.

Cathy: Matthew, obviously it’s a very important issue and we do appreciate you coming on ABC News Radio and giving us your insights this evening, and many thanks.

Matt: No problem, thank you for having me on the program.

Cathy: That was Matthew Wright there, he’s the CEO of the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations.