Transforming lives

Australia’s disability scheme marks a turning point

Melanie O'Brien
Alec McConnell

Social policy, Health | Australia

2 March 2017

Supporting people with disability isn’t just a human right, it’s a requirement under international law, and Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme is helping the nation lead the world in meeting these obligations, Melanie O’Brien and Alec McConnell write.

With the resumption of Australia’s parliament, there has been much discussion about the funding of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), including mixed messages from the government. Many people may be asking why it is so important to fund the NDIS, and in particular, why is it so much more important than the previous disability service system Australia had?

The NDIS began its full official roll out across Australia in April 2016. It is available to people who incurred a permanent disability before the age of 65 which impacts on their daily life. NDIS participants are interviewed regarding their needs and future aspirations, and assessments are performed by allied health professionals to determine what ‘reasonable and necessary’ supports will be provided to each participant.

The NDIS scheme shifts funding from an equitable division of a pot of money to allocating a recipient’s funding by assessing what they actually need and acknowledging that the person has a human right to access to those services.

As with any funding or government scheme, there have been some gaps and challenges for NDIS service providers and participants. The most common issues faced have been inadequate funding for the provision of transport, pricing for support workers being set unreasonably low and many technical issues with the NDIS portal when it was opened.

But despite the challenges, the NDIS makes Australia a world leader in disability service provision, through the provision of adequate funding, a rights-based framework, and empowering participants to take control of their own lives and the support they receive.

More on this: India’s new disability legislation offers hope

The system it replaced was state-based, and saw significant funding provided in block grants to organisations. This led to service providers holding the control of funding instead of the end consumers. Queensland, in particular, has always been poorly funded for disability services, so the contrast since the introduction of the NDIS has been incredible.

For service providers, the transition from the old state-based system was a roller-coaster ride from April to November 2016, which turned into a tidal wave surf in December 2016. The services now being provided to families are not comparable to the old system: rather than struggling and ‘making do’ with the funding that is available, as was the case in the past, NDIS participants now have access to all ‘reasonable and necessary’ supports to help them live a full life as a part of their community. This scheme is truly transforming the lives of thousands of our most vulnerable Australians.

For example, Michael Kane has multiple intellectual and physical disabilities and is a client of Tardiss Inc., a regional charity and disability service provider in Townsville, Queensland. Michael received two hours of support delivery under the previous state-based system. This was enough to do a quick grocery shop each week, covering the necessities but not providing any quality of life. Under the NDIS, Michael receives approximately 25 hours of support each week through Tardiss Inc. to help him participate in activities such as the Men’s Shed and woodwork. The NDIS is supporting thousands of participants just like Michael to start reaching out and participating within his community.

Australia became a party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons With a Disability (CRPD) in 2008. The CRPD is one of, if not the most, complex human rights treaties and the most costly to implement. Nonetheless, 172 states signed on, highlighting the global recognition of how vital it is to provide persons with disabilities with the rights that give them the freedom to live their life to the fullest.

More on this: How one policy fundamentally shifted the grounds on disability inclusiveness

Under the CRPD, Australia is obligated to ensure specific rights for persons with a disability that are not found under more general rights conventions like those on civil and political rights, which also apply to persons with a disability. The CRPD-specific rights include living independently and being included in the community, personal mobility and protection in situations of risk and emergency.

The CRPD also includes rights that do appear in other rights conventions but are much more specific and detailed when applied to persons with a disability, as they may require more steps for implementation. These include the right to health, education, participation in leisure and sport, freedom from exploitation and violence, access to justice and respect for privacy and family.

The NDIS is a crucial element for Australia to meet its obligations to provide many of these rights. Through the services provided under the NDIS, Australians with a disability are able to live independently, be included in the community, have personal mobility and have protection in situations of risk and emergency. By doing this, Australians with a disability are thus more able to access other rights such as education, health, employment, and participation in leisure and sport.

Persons with a disability have experienced an increased risk of exploitation and violence (particularly abuse and neglect) in an under-funded and under-serviced system. The more comprehensive regime of the NDIS structure means they are less likely to be subject to exploitation and violence.

The NDIS is an outstanding system that goes a long way to upholding Australia’s human rights obligations for persons with a disability. The Australian government needs to recognise the crucial and innovative nature of the NDIS and ensure it continues to its full capacity. The challenge is to fund it without cutting services from others who need it. Australia needs to uphold the rights of Australians with a disability, and the NDIS is a turning point for our society.

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