"I know saying good and ordinary sounds like they don’t go together, but they do. People with intellectual disability just want a good ordinary life, like anybody else."

Last week our Chairperson, Michael Sullivan, was the key note speaker at the Ombudsman Forum - Addressing the abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability. Michael delivered an important and powerful speech and raised his voice to speak up on behalf of so many who haven’t been able to. As part of our Speak Up series we are featuring Michael's speech.

My name is Michael Sullivan. I am the Chairperson of the New South Wales Council for Intellectual Disability.

The Ombudsman’s office has decided to hold this forum to try to find ways to stop the abuse and neglect of people with intellectual disability.

It’s great that they have decided to seek the advice of such a big variety of people with expertise including people with intellectual disability themselves. The motto of nothing about us without us is very important and never more so for this type of discussion.

We are here today to see what we can plan, change and do, to make a difference to this problem of abuse and neglect against people with intellectual disability.


There’s no quick fix for this, it’s a hard topic to even talk about, but we have to be open about it. Admit when it’s happened in the past and if it’s happening now. So we can change the future. Organisations need to train their staff about not allowing abuse and neglect and acknowledge it when it happens.

In the past, incidents of abuse and neglect have been swept under the carpet, but we are hopefully past that now. It’s time to take a really different approach. Now it’s time to shine a big bright light on the issue and ask why is it happening still?

And what are we going to do to stop it? What changes can we make to our organisations, our systems, our policies, our people, to get a different outcome. To create a better life for people with intellectual disability. One where we feel safe, supported and valued. One where our rights are respected and we are valued as a good ordinary group of people.

I know saying good and ordinary sounds like they don’t go together, but they do. People with intellectual disability just want a good ordinary life, like anybody else.

And people with intellectual disability need to be able to ask for good things, and that includes safety and that includes comfort.
And when these things are not right, when they have gone as far wrong as abuse and neglect, we need to be given the chance to speak up. To say when it has happened to us.

But People with intellectual disability can find it very hard to speak up about abuse and neglect for so many reasons.

Sometimes it is because they have not had a chance to learn how to speak up. Speaking up is something you learn how to do and if you have spent your life being told what to do and that your opinion doesn’t matter then you will find it very hard to speak up.

Some people with intellectual disability don’t have the confidence to speak out and at other times it’s because they have tried to speak up before and not been listened to properly or believed.

Imagine how terrible that would be. You finally get the courage up to tell someone you have been abused and they don’t believe you. Or they do, but say it’s too late to do anything about it now.

And if you don’t feel safe about speaking up, then you won’t. You don’t want to make things worse for yourself, so a person with an intellectual disability needs to feel really safe, before they can speak up.

It’s really important to find someone you can talk to who is really listening.

When someone has tried to speak up and not been listened to, and they are asked to say what happened, it can be hard to trust. What makes this time different from last time?

Many people who have been abused have been told that they must never tell anyone, or something bad will happen. How do we let these people know they can stay safe and they can tell their scary secret?

The people who are being told a secret need to be very caring and really listen.

This might be the only time they will ever tell what has happened to them.

Those closest to people with complex communications needs may be the ones who can tell something is wrong, when the person in their care isn’t behaving as usual and they seem upset. We need to pay attention to people’s intuition and gut feelings too. If a staff member or family member has a funny feeling things aren’t right, then follow up. And ask is everything ok? Don’t just ask, find out. Sometimes they are being told something but the real story is behind the words.

And sometimes people who have been abused just can’t say anything about it at all. They are just too upset and hurt. The people around them need to pay attention to changes in behaviour.

Listening behind the words, hearing the story behind what someone is telling you. Body language. Acting out of character.

Sometimes people will ignore behaviour changes and just say oh that’s just because of their intellectual disability, when those around them know they are acting odd.

Words may have messages; ‘I don’t like that person’, may mean ‘I am really scared of that person, because he hurt me’. People with intellectual disability need opportunities to tell their story, not just once, but as long as it takes for them to be able to say what they are trying to say. They need time.

Abuse can take many forms: verbal, physical sexual. And we have to remember abuse can happen to anyone, people of all genders are sexually abused.

And neglect doesn’t always look the same. A person can be neglected, with a lack of food and water, without being washed and clothed properly, or being taken to the doctor when they need to. They can also be just left alone without conversation, friends, activities, sitting on their own in an empty room, without human connection.

We need to ask:
- who is at risk?
- what we can do to help people with intellectual disability speak up?
- how can it be easier for staff to speak up too?
- who does something in response to this reporting?

That’s so important. It isn’t just that abuse or neglect is reported, there needs to be action.

I feel like I have asked a lot of questions of you today. Asked for answers to some pretty big questions. That’s what this forum is about. It’s about starting that process, shining that big bright light into every scary corner.

So let’s see what we can do, what we can come up with. Let’s be brave and not pretend things are perfect now. Let’s be bold and have big ideas.

ph. 1800 424 065       email: info@nswcid.org.au

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