Our royal commission is not yet a safe place for people with disability
6 November 2019 at 4:59 pm
Emma Bennison, CEO of Blind Citizens Australia, reflects on her experience putting together a submission to the royal commission and the support – or lack thereof – she received.
In the lead up to the first royal commission hearing which commenced in Townsville on Monday (4 November) I wrote to the chair of our disability royal commission, The Hon. Ronald Sackville AO QC about my experience of making a submission.
I felt compelled to make him aware of serious concerns I have about the commission’s ability to understand and adequately meet the unique needs of people with disability. While I am assured that my letter has been passed on, two weeks on, I have received no direct acknowledgement of my correspondence.
Furthermore, the bureaucratic response I received after lodging my personal submission, two days beyond the promised 48 hour response time-frame, was cold and unempathetic considering the traumatic nature of the subject matter.
What is missing?
In summary, the information provided about the process is scant, legalistic and unclear; the counselling service is limited and difficult to access; and there appears to be a lack of awareness and empathy for those of us who have found the courage to share our stories.
My submission outlined physical and emotional abuse I experienced in the special education system and in the workplace; and neglect of me in a customer service context. However, this article is not about the content of my submission, it is about the impact of the process and what needs to change.
Telling my story is traumatic and exhausting
For a start, it was and still is incredibly difficult to tell my story. Even for me, an experienced advocate used to calling out discrimination and inappropriate behaviour, it has been much more difficult than I anticipated.
Of course, I expected I would react emotionally and be retraumatised as a result of telling my story. I anticipated that I would be doubtful and terrified before I pressed send on it. I even expected (rightly as it turned out) that making a submission would be an exhausting process which would impact on my work and family life for a period of time.
What I didn’t anticipate was the extent to which writing down my experiences would bring the shame, disempowerment and terror I have successfully blocked out for 40 years to the surface in a way I have not experienced before. Nor did I appreciate the impact revisiting the experiences would have on my self confidence and self-esteem in the present.
Every individual’s story will be unique and so too, their experience of its telling. I am not in any way wanting to discourage people with disability from making submissions. On the contrary, we need to be heard in order for change to occur. Our royal commission offers a unique opportunity for that to happen.
Still, what has struck me is that if I, as someone who is well educated and well supported, has found this process so much more traumatic and exhausting than I anticipated, how might someone without the benefit of good support experience it.
Ensuring our royal commission is a safe place
Sleep has been in short supply for me recently. So I’ve had plenty of time to consider the question of what could be done to make our royal commission a “safe space” for us.
Before we even get to the point of writing a submission, many of us first need to unlearn ingrained patterns of minimisation and dissociation which are often well entrenched, particularly if we have been exposed to multiple traumas. Also, society’s negative attitudes towards people with disability have left many of us feeling unworthy of being heard. For instance, my initial response was that I should not take up the time, space and resources of the commission when the experiences of others are so much more serious and worthy of scrutiny than mine. After all, I have the good fortune to be well-educated, to have a wonderful family and a fulfilling job.
These struggles to feel worthy and to acknowledge our experiences are very real. So there needs to be greater acknowledgement of that in communications from the commission if the true extent to which violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation has impacted us is to be exposed.
Also, for many, the workings of a royal commission remain a mystery. I have friends who work in the legal profession, but frankly, lawyers are not always best placed to provide down to earth, practical information about what those of us who make submissions can expect, how our information will be used and what will happen if we are called as witnesses. People with disability need to be involved in crafting the messaging so that the language is accessible to all, the process is clear and we feel welcome and safe to share our stories.
A reliable and responsive counselling service
For me though, the change which would help most is a reliable counselling service available 24 hours a day, provided by staff with expertise in dealing with complex trauma.
Currently, the counselling service is advertised as being available between 9am and 6pm. However, I have discovered that even during these hours it appears impossible to come by. When I attempted to access the service recently, I was greeted by a synthetic voice advising me that the next available counsellor would be with me shortly. A brief period of hold music followed before the line went dead. I continued to wait for several minutes, but to no avail. I then called again with the same result.
So at this stage, while any counselling would be most welcome, I know I’m not alone when I say that it is at 2am when I would most benefit from the expertise of an experienced trauma counsellor. I recognise the economic limitations of staffing a 24-hour service. However, my view is that this is an absolute necessity, particularly given the high proportion of people with disability who experience isolation and discrimination, including within their own home or at the hands of family, friends and support staff.
So why did I ultimately decide to make a submission?
In a nutshell, because in spite of all the opportunities I have had, I still feel disempowered, invisible, frightened and voiceless as a result of the abuse and neglect I have experienced. I have a strong desire to be heard and for the impact on me of the abuse and neglect to be acknowledged.
I hope that the telling of my story will bring me some measure of peace and that by talking about my experience of making a submission, I have helped others feel more confident to do so. Our stories do matter. Providing our royal commission offers us a safe space in which to tell them, they can act as a catalyst for real change.
While I strongly encourage people with disability to take full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have their stories heard, I fervently believe that our royal commission must urgently listen to and engage with us if it is to meet the needs of the very people it has been established to serve.