Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Justice and Safeguards

This week has seen two stories emerge in the South Australia media relating to disability and justice.

One was about murder charges laid against a couple who are alleged to have intentionally neglected to death their adult daughter living with disability. The second story was about the dismissal of criminal charges against a bus driver accused of sexually assaulting two child passengers living with intellectual disability.

Both stories provoke concern about the safety of people living with disability, and invite the assertion 'something must be done', for example that the justice system be improved so that people living with disability get a fair go, or that police-checking be strengthened, or that mandatory reporting arrangements be introduced or improved, or that security cameras be introduced, or that there be stronger arrangements for professional intervention to reduce risk of 'within-family' assault or neglect.

While all such ideas are understandable, by themselves they will not have the critical impact that people might hope for. This is because we have to think beyond the strengthening of justice remedies, security arrangements and professional interventions.

We have to think about the underlying expectations that appear to drive how community sees its role in the lives of people living with disability. Who in this young woman's neighbourhood was asking about her wellbeing? This isn't a question merely about the availability and practice of professionals, or the involvement of official 'community visitors'. it is a question about a person's visibility in community life, and about neighbourly concern.

Our society has a longstanding history of providing disability support in a way that separates people from ordinary community life. In so doing, we inadvertently train the citizenry to believe that the welfare of people living with significant disability is someone else's concern, someone else's job. Yet we are all part of a species that has ancient traditions of hospitality and care, at least in part because of the interdependency we all experience; that's why we organise ourselves into communities in the first place.

And therein lies the irony. In the way we have organised formal responses to people's situations, we have diminished our instinctive capacity to be welcoming and hospitable.

We have to find ways to support our communities to reconnect with this instinctive capacity, otherwise these deeply troubling incidents will continue, regardless of the hoped-for attainment of well-tuned justice systems and professional nirvana.

One clear path we can take is to discontinue our unfortunate habit of spending public money on special, separate arrangements for people living with disability, be it a disability enterprise sheltered workshop, a special bus, a group home, or a special school.

In the context of our ancient traditions, these well-intentioned facilities seem to me artificial and, when you stop to think about it, odd.   And they do little to uphold and advance the inherent value of people living with disability as active, integrated members of community. They are ultimately counter-productive.

Rather, we need to orchestrate disability support in ways that connect people into community life, not separate them from it.  It may well be that for some people living with severe disability this will be a difficult endeavour, but it is an essential endeavour to achieve better natural safeguards in people's lives and to improve their life chances.

In addition, we need to hold properly accountable all the arenas of community life - schools, workplaces, public transportation, malls, and so on - for being authentically welcoming and engaging of all citizens.

It will take a concerted effort from all of us. We cannot solely rely on the introduction of the proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme, because by itself that scheme may not be successful in retraining community to exercise its ancient and instinctive capacity.  Also, the scheme may not successfully address a problem that many people living with disability and their families have, where as a result of their experiences of service recipiency, or service-waiting, they carry very low expectations of what may be possible in their lives.

Instead, it will be each of our personal and individual actions of welcome, assistance, solidarity and creativity - person by person, street by street, and neighbourhood by neighbourhood - that will deliver the true safeguards in people's lives.

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