By bobb | Mon, 4/11/2019 - 00:00

Luke Henriques-Gomes

First day of hearings told multiple instances of violence led to anxiety that affected 10-year-old’s walking and speech

A 10-year-old girl who lives with Asperger syndrome was hit over the head, pushed from a pier and began hiding in a garbage bin to avoid further bullying, the disability royal commission has been told.

On the first day of the hearings on Monday, Kerri Mellifont, the counsel assisting the commission, highlighted the case of Charlotte*, whose mother said she was hospitalised due to the anxiety caused by her treatment and eventually removed from the mainstream school.

“Charlotte has been subject to multiple instances of bullying and violence,” Mellifont said, quoting the mother. “The resulting anxiety was crippling, even affecting her walking and speech. The hospital wrote to the school with no response.”

“‘We’ve had such a horrible journey … it’s almost like because Charlotte’s different, she’s viewed as less.’”

Charlotte’s story was contained in a submission to the commission, which Mellifont said was first looking at education and learning because these were key enablers of other rights.

A Queensland mother of a 13-year-old girl with Down syndrome was the commission’s first witness at the hearings in Townsville.

She became emotional as she recalled how her daughter’s outlook shifted when she reached year two and was placed in a class with a teacher who would regularly yell at her.

“Her behaviour went down, really downhill … especially in the first two weeks,” the mother said.

“She was screaming, slamming doors, she was in her room yelling ‘sit’, she was hurting the dog, she was hurting me … She was just totally out of character.”

The child quickly became “petrified” of her teacher, who rejected the mother’s offer to help her with learning resources she’d collated over time and instead said she would do her “own research”.

The commission heard the child was forced to sit on a bathmat and to hide the triangular pencils that she needed under her desk from other students.

She was not allowed to sit with her peers at lunchtime and was given a “special place” with a sign above it that said “L”, the first letter of her name.

In one instance, the mother said she witnessed the teacher dragging her daughter “down the stairs without her glasses on at a pace that [the child] couldn’t maintain.” “The idea of doing that without her glasses was just terrifying,” the woman said.

The woman said that the school’s principal blamed her, claiming the issue was her relationship with the teacher. She moved her daughter after only three weeks.

“Students with disabilities have the right to an education in their community, not somewhere else but where they live,” the mother said.

The commission also heard from Dr Lisa Bridle, a disabilities expert, and the north Queensland disability advocate Deborah Wilson.

Bridle told how students with disabilities were kept out of mainstream schools through a process she labelled “gatekeeping”.

She said: “The things that are said to families are either, ‘we don’t cater for students with this level of disability’, ‘we won’t have the resources, we can’t ensure that your child will be safe if they enrol at this school. You will find the resources are somewhere else.’”

Bridle, whose adult son has Down syndrome, also gave evidence about the use of exclusion and seclusion in schools, as well as cases of abuse.

She was aware of one student who was told to sit on a dog mat in case they had a toilet accident. In another case, Bridle said a teacher who admitted hitting a child was defended by the school’s leadership.

“But when the parent approached the school leadership, one of the things … that were said to her was that he probably didn’t even know he had been hit,” Bridle said.

The decision to commence the commission on Monday was the source of frustration among some disability advocates, including the Greens senator Jordon Steele-John, who lives with cerebral palsy. They say people with disabilities have not been given enough time and support to safely and effectively engage with the commission.

The royal commission chair, Ronald Sackville, hit back on Monday: “It has taken more time than we hoped but these services are now in place and the relevant agencies are working hard to deal with the pent-up demand.

“Unfortunately there are one or two commentators whose contributions often appear calculated to discourage people from telling their stories to the commission and to increase their levels of anxiety.”

The commission has also faced criticism over the independence of two of the commissioners, who have previously served in the public services. It will hold four days of hearings in Townsville this week.

*Name has been changed