Speaker by Various Artists

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Disability and the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse

by Hilary Stace

The Royal Commission on abuse in care is very significant for the disability community. For many decades last century, thousands of disabled children, and adults who managed to survive, were locked away from families and communities. This was not for anything they had done, but for the perceived threat their impairments posed to some powerful people who believed that disability was caused by ‘tainted heredity’. 

These widely held but false scientific beliefs held that impairments, particularly learning/intellectual disability and mental illness, but also other conditions such as epilepsy, were signs of genetic inferiority. These supposedly hereditary physical and intellectual defects caused consequent moral ‘degeneracy’ making disabled people less ‘fit’, threatening the ‘fitness’ of the rest of society.

Powerful politicians, doctors, public servants and others decided that disabled people must therefore be segregated from mainstream society to prevent their reproduction. Laws such as the 1911 Mental Defectives Act started the requirement to report and classify disabled people. Later, psychopaedic institutions such as Templeton or Kimberley were developed.

The IHC was founded in 1949 by parents who did not want their children sent away to institutions and instead wanted education and other facilities in their local communities. However, the children and their families faced much stigma and discrimination.

Despite the advocacy of these brave parents a government committee in the early 1950s recommended that the current institutions (‘mental deficiency colonies’) be expanded and parents encouraged (or coerced) into sending their disabled children to them by the age of five. A decade later a government documentary suggested that one in a thousand children should be in such places because of disability. There are families around New Zealand who didn’t find out that they had a missing family member until the institutions started to close in the late 1970s.

There are not many survivors of those times. Lives were often short and sad. But there are numerous reports of children denied identity, education, or contact with families, and exposed to physical , emotional and sexual abuse. The ‘back wards’ of the institutions were often places of horror. We need to hear and acknowledge this history to ensure such things never happen again.

The Royal Commission is working out how best to hear these stories, and to reach and welcome anyone who wants to talk to them, within a safe environment. This is the first inquiry in the world to cover all types of abuse in a variety of settings. It wants to hear the stories of disabled children, but also children who were sent to youth justice or abusive foster homes or experienced abuse in faith-based care. The main focus is 1950-1999, but survivors, family members or staff from outside this era will also be heard. So, coverage is large and complex.

One of the five Commissioners, Paul Gibson, has lived experience of disability and has long been an advocate for an inquiry into historic abuse through various roles he has had in the disability community including with DPA and more recently in the Human Rights Commission. For several reasons, stories of disability abuse are harder to find and hear than some others and need champions. 

The Royal Commission is highly political. The last government fought against the idea, but in Opposition Jacinda Ardern promised an inquiry and announced the Royal Commission in early 2018. Despite its independent status there are numerous and sometimes competing agendas going on. In addition, abuse is messy and complex – and abused and abusers may be the same people. To hear and acknowledge abuse it is necessary to share human vulnerability, which is not easy when we are used to adversarial hierarchical systems. 

Many people are working hard to make this Royal Commission work, but it will take time and the road will not be smooth.

You can find out more or register to talk to the commission through their website:

https://www.abuseincare.org.nz/

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