One in five people in Australia have some form of disability, about 18% of the population, however that number more than doubles in correction facilities, where almost 50% of adult detainees have a disability.
At the launch of the ACT Corrective Services (ACTCS) Disability Action and Inclusion Plan on International Day of People with Disability yesterday, 3 December, commissioner Jon Peach said his department had a “critical responsibility” to protect the rights of those people.
The Action and Inclusion Plan is the first of its kind in the ACT, and Community Chair of Disability Justice Reference Group, Dougie Herd, said it should be the first of many.
“Every agency in the ACT must have one of these plans in place which it then makes a live document,” he said.
Mr Herd said there was a “certain usefulness” and “a kind of poetic irony to the first cab off the rank being Corrections” because, if Corrective Services can do it, other departments like Community Services, Health and Education “can do it any minute they want”.
“Do this because it’s the right thing,” he said.
“Do this because people with disability have rights wherever they are, either as people incarcerated, or those who are working with and for those who are incarcerated.
“And where we have led today, the rest of the ACT will follow, because I’m absolutely sure there’s a political commitment in the ACT Government that was recently elected to make things better for people with disability in the future.”
Speaking at the launch, Minister for Disability and Justice Health, Emma Davidson, said ensuring equitable access to justice for people with disability was a key part of realising the ACT Government’s commitment to inclusion.
“This plan sets out key actions ACT Corrective Services will implement over the next four years to improve access and inclusion for detainees, offenders, staff and members of the community who come into contact with corrective services facilities and services,” Ms Davidson said.
Mr Peach said he was proud ACTCS was a diverse organisation that welcomed people of all abilities.
“We have a critical responsibility to ensure that barriers to participation are removed at all levels and that the rights of people with disability are protected, from staff to offenders, and community members visiting our facilities.”
Improving communication to ensure human rights upheld
The Action and Inclusion Plan cited estimates that up to 20% of detainees in Australia had an intellectual disability, and the rate of cognitive impairment was likely to be higher due to the number of detainees who reported acquired brain injuries.
Just over half the detainees in the ACT reported having experienced head injuries resulting in a loss of consciousness, and screening indicated almost 30% were likely to have an intellectual disability, according to the ACT’s Detainee Health and Wellbeing Survey in 2016.
A key focus of the Plan was to improve communication because people with disability were not always able to receive legal information in accessible ways and have their rights upheld.
It said the need for simplified information in alternative formats was a consistent theme across the feedback received, such as Plain English, braille and large print documents.
This may also include video recordings for key admission information, audio books for visitor information, audio loop instructions in waiting areas and proper facilities for hearing impaired people to make phone calls.
The Disability Action and Inclusion Plan is part of the ACT Government Disability Justice Strategy 2019-2020, which aims to achieve equity and inclusion for people with disability in the justice system.
Importance of sustained community consultation
Following the Plan’s publication, ACTCOSS CEO Dr Emma Campbell said her organisation was particularly keen to ensure there was robust community consultation and engagement as it was delivered, including with detainees in the Alexander Maconochie Centre.
“Incarceration can be particularly difficult for people with disability, who struggle because they are unable to access supports they were receiving in the community, or who may be unwilling to identify as a person with disability due to fear of being made more vulnerable within the prison system,” she said.
“Monitoring and evaluation is essential to ensure that the good intentions of this Plan translate into good outcomes.”
Sharing his favourite quote, Mr Herd said, “philosophers have only interpreted the world and the point is to change it”.
“This is a point at which we move beyond interpretation and analysis, both of which are crucial, to implementation.”