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Disability complaints processes need major overhaul

9 November 2022
Complaint mechanisms miss the mark
A new report commissioned by the Disability Royal Commission calls for an overhaul of Australia's complaint mechanism processes to better protect people with disability.

A new research report has found there are major limitations in existing approaches to dealing with complaints of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation experienced by people with disability.

Commissioned by the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, the report, co-authored by Associate Professor Dinesh Wadiwel (The University of Sydney), Dr Claire Spivakovsky (The University of Melbourne) and Associate Professor Linda Steele (University of Technology Sydney), calls for the development of an independent and effective complaint process to deal with allegations of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. 

Associate Professor Wadiwel, from the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences, said many existing complaint mechanisms used by people with disability do not align with contemporary standards of justice and human rights. 

“Many current complaint pathways do not appear fit for purpose in responding effectively to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation experienced by people with disability,” Associate Professor Wadiwel said. 

“Violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation are serious violations of the human rights of people with disability, and allegations require dedicated processes of reporting and resolution.” 

“We urgently need to design complaint processes that are perceived as independent, trustworthy and effective by people with disability.”

Existing complaint mechanisms miss the mark

‘Complaint mechanisms’ – as defined in the report – are general procedures within organisations, institutions or governing authorities that allow individuals the opportunity to report negative experiences and problematic conduct and policy, seek assistance, and, where appropriate, trigger system change.

To gain an overview of Australia’s complaint mechanism landscape, researchers surveyed ‘website information, and policy or legislation’, to understand how each complaint process functioned, as well as the information available to potential complainants with disability.

Researchers found that many complaint mechanisms, particularly those that were not independent and were embedded within an institution or organisation, appeared focused on local complaint resolution. Most complaints about violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, Associate Professor Wadiwel said, “should be escalated to an external authority”.

“Many of the complaint mechanisms we surveyed were established by organisations with a policy goal to regulate services and maintain codes of conduct,” Associate Professor Wadiwel said.

“These complaint mechanisms were not set up to respond to violence, abuse, neglect and/ or exploitation.” 

“We see evidence of this where complaint mechanisms recommend local conciliation and resolution of complaints. This is an inappropriate way to respond to allegations of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, preventing real justice for victims-survivors and potentially enabling systems to continue to perpetuate violence towards people with disability.” 

Associate Professor Wadiwel said the reporting of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation should occur through a clear and dedicated pathway, “with unique complaint handling processes which are proportionate to the seriousness of these complaints and are independent from the setting in which the incident has occurred.”

“Where appropriate, there should be clearly documented procedures for referring matters to relevant authorities, including the police.”

Next steps: establishing an independent complaints process

The report surveyed scholarly literature, reports, and submissions to examine the experiences of people with disability navigating complaint mechanisms, including the reasons why some people with disability do not complain about experiences of violence. 

Based on this survey, the report found that some people with disability experience extraordinarily poor processes in complaint handling, and either receive no outcome after complaining, or experience adverse consequences such as retribution. 

The report recommends governments develop an independent, trustworthy and effective complaint pathway to deal with complaints relating to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. 

“We need society-wide acknowledgement of responsibility for the systematic violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation experienced by people with disability,” Associate Professor Wadiwel said. 

“Creating independent, trustworthy and effective complaint processes would be a positive step forward in addressing violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.”

Read the full report, published by the Disability Royal Commission, here

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