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Shocking evidence on the treatment of people with cognitive disabilities in Australia

Senior man on a hospital bed alone in a room looking through the hospital window

The disability royal commission is investigating problems faced by people with cognitive disability trying to access treatment in the health system. People with disabilities are viewed by the medical profession as broken and in need of fixing, the disability royal commission in Sydney has been told.

In his opening address to the commission, chair Ronald Sackville QC told the inquiry there was a large difference in life expectancy for people living with intellectual disability in NSW. Over two weeks the commission will hear directly from several people with cognitive disability as well as parents, medical practitioners, experts, advocacy groups and government representatives. The inquiry expects to hear about research which shows the median age of death for people in NSW with intellectual disability is 27 years earlier than the general population – 54 years compared to 81 years, Mr Sackville said.

The same group when aged between five and 69 had three times the number of deaths than the general population, he said. People in NSW on the autism spectrum also have a mortality rate over twice that of the general population. The consequences of neglect or abuse within the health system for those with cognitive disability are “as disturbing as they are profound,” Mr Sackville said. “They should shock the conscience of all Australians.” Rebecca Kelly, whose eight-year-old son Ryan has complex medical needs including Down syndrome, said people with disability were seen as “in some way broken” and needed to be made “as normal as possible”.

The royal commission held a closed familiarisation session for witnesses  to help them feel as comfortable as possible when they give evidence in the hearing room, which has been modified to minimise physical barriers.

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