This was presented at the Sydney Democracy Network’s Power and Accountability workshop in early November 2015. They are really only speaking notes, but I wanted to make sure this was out there somewhere.
Who counts? I ask this question with all its senses of resonance: who is significant, and who is doing the counting. And of course: What counts? When it comes to people with disability and violence, this question is particularly loaded.
Violence against people with disability is rife in Australia. It’s also excused, dismissed, not reported, and frequently not considered a crime. Advocacy bodies know this, because we see the pointy end. We see the people who are locked in cages in their family’s house; we see the people who are raped by support workers; we see the people who are forced to continue living with someone who assaults them everyday. But accountability in this context is difficult.
This is partly because some of the usual mechanisms for some kind of “accountability”, especially the justice system, often just don’t work. Beyond Justice, a study undertaken in Victoria tracked the way that police often refused to take reports, failed to investigate, failed to recommend for prosecution, and so on, when people with disability are victims of crime.
But I want to focus on the broader issues of accountability in this space. We are talking about systemic violence against people with disability, yet government refuse to act. Much of this violence occurs while people are receiving services, services which the government frequently funds and audits. Yet it is difficult to achieve responses to this violence. There are lots of reasons for this, which I’m happy to discuss in question time, but the issues I’d like to highlight here today have to do with data. Who counts? Who do they count? And what are they actually counting?
The ABS introduced the Women’s Safety Survey under pressure from feminists concerned about violence against women. It quickly changed its name to the Personal Safety Survey, partly thanks to Men’s Right Activists, and partly because of a claim that the Survey ought to compare violence by gender. It is now broadly recognised as Australia’s measure of violence in the community. It looks, then, like this Survey should reveal whether there are more specific groups – like people with disability – who experience higher incident rates of violence.
And it does, kind of. It recognises that, for example, of the women who experienced violence in 2011-2012, 36% had disability or a long term health condition. That means that women with disability experience a higher level of violence, right there. But when we delve into the methodology, we discover that actually who counts – in the sense of who is in the sample – is an important question.
The PSS only counts people in private dwellings. This leaves out some of the settings in which people with disability are over represented: in group homes, in large residential facilities, in psychiatric facilities, in aged care facilities, in prisons and so on. And if there’s one thing we know about these settings, it’s that they lend themselves to higher levels of violence and abuse.
The PSS also will only run interviews with individuals, meaning that anyone who requires any support with communication (like Deaf people, or people with communication needs) is automatically excluded. Again, we know that those people who are less able to independently communicate are less likely to disclose violence, and thus are more likely to be targeted by perpetrators…
The PSS also understands violence in fairly limited ways. People with disability experience what Linda Steele identifies as ‘lawful violence,’ violence which against any other person would constitute a serious crime, but against people with disability is ‘treatment’. This violence includes solitary confinement or imprisonment – called ‘seclusion’ when it’s against people with disability – and forced medication – called ‘chemical restraint’ when we’re talking about people with disability – or assault – called ‘physical restraint’ when we’re talking about people with disability.
All of these questions about ‘who counts and what counts’ means that it’s very difficult to find quantitative data that truly gives incidence. Crimes data just doesn’t count violence against people with disability. At best, it reflects the barriers that people with disability face when reporting crimes. Similarly, the PSS reflects only a small slice of the violence that people with disability experience, and does not reflect anything about incidence or prevalence. And it’s important that while we can easily show that people with disability don’t really count for the survey, it’s also important to note who is doing the counting: the ABS is funded specifically by government. I noticed the other day that they measure softdrink intake in Australia, yet measuring violence against people with disability seems beyond its capacity…
So what does this mean for accountability? Well, thus far, it means that the Australian Government, and the state and territory Governments, don’t recognise violence against people with disability as an urgent issue. Without solid data, it becomes very difficult to argue that these forms of violence, which are often occurring far away from community oversight, concealed within specialist institutions.
One approach that disability advocacy takes it to bring in counter-frameworks. Some advocates have fought hard to have forms of ‘treatment’ or lawful violence, recognised by the Committee on Torture, which they have been. Dinesh Wadiwel has talked about these institutions as ‘black sites.’ That of course does not mean that any Australian Government accept that perspective.
Another has been to call for, and then respond to, a Senate Inquiry into Violence, Abuse and Neglect against People with Disability. One of thekey points made there was about data, and about administrative data being used more meaningfully. Earlier this year, I coordinated disability studies researchers to make a submission to the Senate Inquiry about the problems with data on violence. Another was that we want a Royal Commission who can more literally hold institutions to account than a Senate Inquiry.
Another is to evoke public outrage as a way of putting pressure on politicians to take these concerns seriously. There has been work to increase media coverage of violence – and some of that has been successful – 4 Corners, kids in schools, etc. This has worked well in Victoria, where 3 separate inquiries into this issue have occurred this year. PWDA have also run an End the Violence campaign, inviting people to send letters about this issue to politicians both at the state and federal level. The hope is that this will help support the reception of the final report of the Senate Inquiry.
But in the end, who counts, and what counts, and who they are counting, strictly circumscribes the Government’s commitment – and we are talking primarily financial commitment – to the safety of people with disability. And the difficulty that we confront is that the power to define – define violence, define disability, define methodologies – and the power to say that people with disability don’t count, can’t be counted, that violence against them doesn’t count as violence – that power remains, at least in its funded, authoritative forms, with Government. And that power to define, and to count, and interpellate, effectively also enables them to define the limits of their own account.