Advocating to close institutions
Historically, people with disability who couldn’t be cared for by family were moved to residential institutions. Concerns about abuse and inhumane conditions experienced by residents in these institutions began to be raised in the 1970s when The Age newspaper ran an ongoing campaign over conditions at Kew Cottages. The continual stories of human-rights abuses led to deinstitutionalisation as state policy in 1979, and the legislative reforms of the 1980s provided new safeguards and approaches. This included the establishment of the Office of the Public Advocate (OPA) and its volunteer Community Visitors program.
OPA’s visits to these institutions in the late 1980s and early 1990s revealed that appalling conditions continued. In May 1991, Public Advocate Ben Bodna raised serious allegations about Aradale with the Minister who decided to investigate. The investigation revealed human-rights violations and compelled the Minister to publicly restate the opening sentences of the investigator’s report:
“Intellectually disabled and psychiatrically ill people are amongst the most vulnerable in our community. The majority are unable to speak out or defend their rights. They have to trust the “system” to do that on their behalf. At Aradale that trust has been broken.”
Up until 1992, more than 2300 Victorians were still living in eight disability residential institutions. Four out of ten residents had lived there for more than 21 years. OPA’s Community Visitors continued to visit these institutions and record the terrible conditions that existed there. Every year the experiences of residents were documented in OPA’s annual report to Parliament. This record of abuse was not ignored and by 1996 more than 800 people had been moved from institutions.
Community Visitor Elaine Nyberg wrote about this in 1997, after ten years of visiting an institution:
“Each year, we wrote in the Annual Report, trying to convey to the community at large what life was like for the residents of a large institution. The lack of privacy, the lack of personal space, the lack of programs, the lack of relationships, the lack of possessions, the lack of dignity, the lack of respect, the lack of toilet seats, … and where WAS the toilet paper? And always in the back of our minds – were we making a difference?
Now the institution is closing down”
As we have since 1986, OPA calls for an end to all congregate care. Our Community Visitors continue to visit people with disability living in the Bundoora and Colac institutions and we continue to document their experiences in our annual reports. All people with disability have a right to social inclusion and live in the Victorian community.