What's behind the headlines prompted by Ronald Sackville's comments?
I wrote the following for an outlet that decided against running it. They are overloaded with content. So, I have decided to make it available here — which is probably what I should have done in the first place.
On 6 June, Ronald Sackville caused uproar with his opening address to public hearing number 24 of Australia’s long-running Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with a Disability. Sackville, an eminent lawyer, and former judge with a garland of professional accolades, has been chairing the Commission since its inception in 2019 and in the latest hearing returned to a discussion about the experiences of young people with disability in different education settings.
What did he say that caused offence? It is not as if Sackville and the Commission have been ignoring disability campaigners. For example, Sackville has taken the interesting step of referring to the ‘special/segregated education system’. This is what most people would call ‘special education’ or ‘special schools’ but what campaigners for the full inclusion of children with a disability in mainstream educational setting prefer to label ‘segregated’, with all the civil rights connotations that term evokes.
No, the passage that caused concern was Sackville’s appeal to pragmatism and nuance.
“We quite often hear the policy issues… 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.”
On Twitter, an ‘award-winning human rights and inclusion advocate’ wrote that “this narrative of we don't need to adopt ‘binary approaches’ appears to be about keeping the door open to recommend approaches that are not #HumanRights compliant.”
A group of disability advocates attending a conference in New York issued a joint statement:
“Chair Sackville referred to advocacy for accepted international human rights principles (including supported decision making, independent living and inclusive education) as ‘binary thinking’. He added that binary approaches assume relatively simple answers to difficult questions. This is concerning because it implies that solutions which are not compliant with international human rights principles may be recommended.”
If you are confused about why activists are worried that a prominent member of the legal establishment may be about to recommend proposals that are not compliant with human rights principles, then it is worth zooming out and looking at the wider landscape in which this debate is taking place.
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