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Thursday, 27 September 1973
Page: 1693

Mr LAMB (La Trobe) - I rise to join in this cognate debate and to support the Government in its moves to improve the welfare of those who benefit under this legislation. Before I do so I would like to thank the honourable member for Hotham (Mr Chipp) and the honourable member for Darling Downs (Mr McVeigh) for their promises of support from their respective parties. The honourable member for Darling Downs added some criticisms which I think were a little unfortunate in that they point out the poor features of the previous legislation and its development in that there were ad hoc changes, improvements and measures. I think that the honourable member should wait until we hear from the findings of the national advisory council on the handicapped soon to be established and then find out how we can approach the whole matter of the handicapped with a co-ordinated and long range plan.

The size of the handicapped population is not declining, even though, due to a reduction in the incidence of infectious diseases, there has been a decline in the number of babies born with brain damage. The overall increase is due mainly to the survival of babies born with what previously were fatal conditions and to industrial and increasing road accidents as well as advances made by medical science. However, estimates of the number of handicapped persons are not easily made. They are not readily available owing to differences in definitions and standards of normality and due to the reticence of many handicapped people to admit that they are actually handicapped. An estimate of the World Health Organisation states that between 1 per cent and 3 per cent of the world's population is mentally retarded. As we were reminded by the honourable member for Hotham, it would appear from these figures that at any time there would be between 120,000 and 240,000 mentally handicapped persons in Australia. Included in that figure would be about 45,000 people under the age of 20.

This Bill attempts to change the method of administration by bringing local government actively into this sphere of help for handicapped people because it will mean localised centres. These are essential because we are not talking about the individuals involved. We are talking of the families involved. The figures given to the Senate Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, dealing with retardation, in 1971 put the number of mentally retarded Victorians at between 70,000 and 71,000. Conservatively assuming that each of those people directly affect 3 normal people, that means that 300,000 Victorians know what mental retardation really means. When we are considering our program, our integrated plan for the handicapped, surely with these figures and knowing about the family's involvement we should be catering for them all. We must be considering also their life with their handicapped family member. Planning must be on a regional basis, not for large institutions, and be planned well away from families.

I now turn to the 2 Bills before the House. The Handicapped Children (Assistance) Bill opens the way, as I prefaced my introduction, **»r local government to contribute to the welfare of the handicapped. Local government authorities will be able to involve themselves in the establishment of training centres, training equipment and residential units. Local governments have displayed only a minor concern in the past. Usually it has been up to local governments to sponsor or initiate early moves, such as the calling of public meetings, and perhaps to sponsor the establishment of a committee, to invigorate that committee to call for funds and even occasionally to donate land to this worthy cause. The program itself is now 3 years old and voluntary and religious organisations have made strong demands on the Federal Government to provide funds. This is because we have relied mainly on the voluntary religious organisations as well as the State instrumentalities. Over these 3 years we have seen a total of $7m granted, mostly for training centres; but also, I might mention, Si. 4m was spent on residences and 5900,000 on training equipment.

Assistance for handicapped persons in Australia has always been spearheaded by voluntary organisations, financed in the main by groups of hard working relatives. It seems we have to be vitally concerned with the handicapped people to realise the importance of upgrading their lives and integrating them with the community. Without that involvement it seems that governments have been tardy in the past. The efforts of these organisations are to be commended and I congratulate them. I should like to mention two such organisations in my own electorate of La Trobe, one on the border I share with the honourable member for Casey (Mr Mathews). I refer to Monkami. The other is Knoxbrooke, which is well in the centre of my electorate. Another organisation which has been giving great service is in the electorate of Diamond Valley. I am sure that the honourable member for Diamond Valley (Mr McKenzie), who sits adjacent to me in this House and who will not have the opportunity to speak in this debate, would like me to mention the fine institution of Churinga.

However, as can be expected, the growth of such services has been uneven throughout the country. There is a need for increased cooperation between the Commonwealth and State departments, particularly with regard to the uniformity of services and long term planning of facilities for the handicapped. There will be funds following the establishment of another commission - another initiative by this Government. A previous speaker asked what help would be flowing from the findings of the interim committee of the Australian Schools Commission. I should like to mention just briefly that there will be funds flowing from the Karmel report. So, there will be less reliance on this Act for education of the handicapped. With less demands for education, the remainder of the funds will be spent in more pressing areas, such as residences.

The Karmel Committee recognised that the Handicapped Children (Assistance) Act 1970 provides for assistance for a range of facilities wider than purely educational ones and it notes that the education of mentally and physically handicapped children is a particularly complex area both by reason of the range and the degree of the handicaps to be catered for and by the diversity of organisational arrangements that have developed over the years in the various States. The Committee observed that about 33,000 children throughout Australia are receiving full time education in special schools and classes for handicapped children. About 85 per cent of them are in government schools and the remainder are in schools run by voluntary bodies or in schools operated by church authorities. While in the 3 smaller States the Government has accepted almost sole responsibility, the voluntary bodies are most active in the 3 larger States. These bodies are composed mainly of parents who have come together by sheer necessity in order to establish a school so that their children may receive an education. While these schools receive substantial subsidies from State and Commonwealth Governments, the parents are responsible for meeting significant costs, usually by fund raising activities and voluntary labour rather than by substantial fees. In Victoria, the Mental Health Authority is the agency responsible for subsidising most voluntary bodies to provide education and training for moderately and severely intellectually handicapped children.

The Karmel Committee believes that in the great majority of cases the diffusion of effort and resources in this way is wasteful and often deleterious to the education of the children concerned. The delegation of responsibility for the education of intellectually handicapped children to health authorities appears to represent a carry-over from the traditional belief that such people are in need of constant medical supervision. The Committee notes that in recent years Great Britain has transferred the educational responsibility for these children from health to education authorities. The Committee, while conscious of States rights in this matter, feels it should register its belief that the interests of handicapped children would be best served if responsibility for their education were placed in the hands of State Education Departments. We have much to witness and look forward to in initiatives of this Government in marrying and integrating education, under the Interim Committee, soon to be the Australian Schools Commission, with the Department of Social Security.

There is a critical shortage of specialist teaching staff for handicapped children and pupils with learning disabilities. This was revealed in an interim report of the ministerial committee of inquiry into special education in Victoria. The report deals particularly with the staffing crisis in the Education Department's psychology and guidance branch and speech therapy branch. The report says that there are only 98 guidance officers - 43 still in training - in the psychology and guidance branch serving a school population of more than 600,000 and the speech therapy branch will finish this year with a deficiency of 59 staff members. One of the reasons why the Victorian Government has been tardy in taking initiatives in this area is that it has excluded handicapped children from their right of free education under the Victorian Education Act. However, the Victorian Government finally has responded to the pressures of the parents, the voluntary bodies, the religious bodies and the findings of the Karmel report and has extended section 61 of the Education Act 1958 to make the Education Department, not the parent - I want honourable members to note that - responsible for the education of mentally and physically handicapped children.

It is not my claim that the Karmel report was responsible for this turnabout; this was an admission by the Assistant Minister for Education, Mr Dixon, about a fortnight ago. He said that the interim report had been made on the implications of the Federal Government's Karmel report on Victorian special education. Because of these initiatives there will be a change in emphasis in the program of expenditure under the Handicapped Children (Assistance) Bill. There will be a concentration now on residential accommodation for mentally retarded children. The waiting list for admission of mentally retarded patients into residential institutions in Victoria is in a state of crisis. Not only is the number of desperate cases awaiting admission increasing alarmingly but also there is no foreseeable time when the Government's proposed residential facilities will be able to cope with the demand. The present residential centres are seriously overcrowded and understaffed and yet they are still being pressured to admit more patients by families who are waiting in desperate circumstances for a bed. It is only when we come in contact with these desperate families and have witnessed the pressures they are under that we realise there is a great need in many cases for an extension of the number of beds available to these people. The key, the index, to the bed shortage crisis is the list of mentally retarded people waiting for admission to Victoria's 9 institutions. That list is increasing at a frightening rate. There is no question that the people on the list urgently need institutional care. Many of them are severely retarded children whose parents are unable to cope and are under psychiatric care.

A mother came into my office in my electorate of La Trobe with a young child of 4 years of age. The child could do nothing but roll on the carpet of my office. It could lift its head only a matter of 6 inches. That was the total free physical movement of which that child was capable. Until that time I had a fleeting understanding and a peripheral concern for the families of handicapped children. From that time, I undertook much research and I am now vitally concerned, as is this Government. That woman cannot find an institution - a bed - to take the pressure off heT family, not even so that she can take a 2weeks holiday after a year of strain. The problem is that there is nowhere for them to go. The average wait is around 2 years. The parents of one severely retarded Mongol child have been on the list for more than 7 years.

The waiting list is split into 4 categories, and these will really emphasise how the Victorian Government has attempted to cope but obviously has not been able to keep up with the demand. The first category is: Most urgent - family in a state of crisis, immediate placement in an institution needed. At latest count there were 318 on this list. The second category is: Urgent - immediate placement desirable, but the family problems are not as grave. There are 207 cases in this category. Probably the mother of young Michael who came to my office is in this category. The third category is: Pending^ - no immediate crisis, but an institutional bed will be needed eventually. There are 813 on this waiting list. The fourth category is: Register - families are coping with the retarded child, placement may never be necessary. There are 1,908 on the list. The real danger area, according to the social workers' report, is the list of 525 families in varying degrees of desperation on the urgent and most urgent waiting lists. This figure is currently increasing at around 25 per cent a year. Sixty new cases came on the list in the 6 months up to about May, according to the medical health authority.

The plight of Victoria is repeated in other States. It is gratifying that the Karmel Committee report and the change in emphasis given to this Act by the Minister for Social Security (Mr Hayden) will mean that more money will be available for residential accommodation. There will be grants made of $2.25m, which is $250,000 less than last year's total but that had to cover education of the handicapped children as well. Last year the grant was $2. 5m, although when we look at the expenditure we find that only $1,781,937 was actually spent. So not only do we have an increase in the proposed expenditure for the current year but also we can add to that the amount that will come from the Karmel Committee report. I have expressed ray concern personally and I have mentioned an individual case. I am glad to join the Government and I am glad to hear the voices of the Opposition joining in approving the initiatives and the change in emphasis that has been pioneered in this Act by the Minister for Social Security. I commend the Bill to the House.

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