Activists fall out of love with Ronald Sackville
The Disability Royal Commission Chair criticised for 'binary thinking' comment
Australia’s Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability ground back into gear again with a series of hearings on education that I wrote about here. One aspect I did not notice at the time was the opening address of Ronald Sackville AO QC, the commission’s chair. Neither, at first, did the Australian Civil Society Delegation who were attending a conference in New York about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The ‘Australian Civil Society Delegation’ is a confusing term because its members are drawn from disability advocacy groups such as Queensland Advocacy for Inclusion.
The delegation noticed Sackville’s opening comments last week and took exception to them.
Towards the end of his address, Sackville calls for compromise in the pursuit of practical solutions:
We quite often hear the policy issues… presented as involving a choice between mutually exclusive alternatives: supported decision-making vs substituted decision-making; open employment vs segregated employment; group homes or similar arrangements vs independent living; and inclusive education vs segregated/special education.
The policy measures needed… do not necessarily require what can be described as binary thinking: that is one or the other. The principal difficulty with binary approaches is that they tend to assume that there are relatively simple answers to difficult questions. If there is one thing that clearly emerges from the enormous range of activities undertaken by the Royal Commission over the three years of our life, it is that problems may be relatively easy to identify but finding solutions that will work is extraordinarily complex and challenging.
This went down like a lead balloon. In response, the delegation released a media statement:
[Sackville’s binary thinking comment is] concerning because it implies that solutions which are not compliant with international human rights principles may be recommended.
Delegation co-lead FPDN CEO Damian Griffis said “Human Rights are inalienable and are not up for negotiation in any way, shape or form. What exactly does the chair mean by ‘binary approaches’ in regards to inclusive education?”
QAI CEO Matilda Alexander says that “Chair Sackville needs to acknowledge that human rights cannot be binary – there’s no dual system.”
I have noted in my previous piece that the Commission has adopted the pejorative language of activists that frames special schools as ‘segregation’. That suggests to me that the Commission is listening to these activists.
However, this is not enough. Unless Sackville concludes that all special provision must be removed and all those with a disability must always be included in mainstream classrooms and other mainstream settings, regardless of any practical challenges, he will disappoint this particular lobby group. There is a worthwhile discussion to have about special schools and inclusion, but activists are not interested in any compromise.
Notice that none of this discussion is evidence-based. Activists have pursued an strategy of arguing that any policy falling short of their positions is a violation of various national and international human rights laws and conventions.
This is not helpful to practitioners on the ground who are trying to make these policies work for all children. Sackville should perhaps listen a little less to activists than he has been doing and listen a little more to parents, teachers and school leaders.