NDIS is a burden, not a blessing, for people with disability

The Coalition intends to reduce NDIS to little more than a rudimentary safety net. Photo: Anna Shvets/Pexels

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the leaders’ debate on April 20 that he’s “blessed” to have had two children who are not living with disability. Considering the mess his government has made of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), this may just be one of the few honest statements he’s made during the election campaign.

Catherine Yeoman confronted Morrison about the cuts for those who rely on NDIS: “We are grateful to receive funds through the NDIS, but have heard many stories of people having their funds cut recently under the current government, including our own.” Yeoman, whose four-year-old son is on the autism spectrum and an NDIS participant, said her sons plan had been cut by 30%, reducing his supports by thousands of dollars.

“We did have to make some decisions about which therapist to cut,” Yeoman told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We’re looking down the thing and we’re like, does he need to be toilet trained or does he need to speak — these were the decisions we had to make,” she said.

People with disability, who have been accepted as NDIS participants, are now being forced to ration their supports. No longer is it attempting to meet its central objective — to support the social and economic participation of people with disability.

The intention of the NDIS was to marketise the disability support system, by introducing competition between providers, to reduce the overall cost to government. NDIS has created a market for disability support workers in particular that, in many cases, only provides for low-paid and insecure work.

“Workers are compelled by employers and the system to ‘price out’ every interaction they experience with clients, while clients are left without the consistent and capable support they require due to a highly unstable, underdeveloped and insecure labour force,” according to The Centre for Future Work submission to the Disability Royal Commission.

Even though disability support workers’ work rights have been significantly attacked, the cost of NDIS has continued to grow.

Minister for NDIS Linda Reynolds said the cost will rise to $40.7 billion over 2024–25. She claims this is unsustainable when justifying the Coalition’s attempt to introduce a raft of cuts, including so-called independent assessments. After a backlash, this was quietly abandoned last year.

NDIS was estimated to cost $33.9 billion in the 2022–23 budget, about 5% of total spending estimated at $628 billion.

By comparison, the government is spending much bigger on far more questionable outlays, including:

The Coalition’s budgeting concerns with NDIS have less to do with financial considerations and more to do with political ones.

Morrison claims that NDIS will always be fully funded, but his objective is to reduce NDIS to little more than a rudimentary safety net. Under his watch, it has indiscriminately reduced funded supports for participants across the board.

While NDIS plans may be internally reviewed, from personal experience this process is little more than rubberstamp. Participants, or their families, whose plans have been cut by NDIS are forced to seek redress through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) — a complex, time-consuming and frustrating process, that is ultimately weighted in favour of the NDIS and its stable of lawyers.

The SMH editorised on April 23 that: “In the five months to November [2021], the number of complaints about the NDIS submitted to the AAT soared 324 per cent over the same period in 2020. It gets worse. In the nine months to March 31, 4656 NDIS-related appeals were lodged with the AAT, compared with 2160 for the whole of the previous financial year.”

I have had my funded supports slashed by NDIS and can attest that the AAT process is neither quick, fair or even handed. The National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), which runs the NDIS, holds all the cards and runs the agenda.

Bill Shorten, Labor’s NDIS spokesperson, has committed that party to overhaul the appeals system, increase NDIA staff numbers (slightly) and reduce NDIS reliance on lawyers and consultants.

But Andrew Charlton, Labor’s captain’s pick for Parramatta, wrote last year that NDIS spending was out of control. “The fatal flaw in the NDIS: It cries wolf but has no shepherd to control its spending,” he said last July. “Like Victor Frankenstein’s unorthodox creation, the NDIA board has slipped control of its masters.”

The Australian Greens want NDIS to be fully funded and for the staff cap to be increased from its current 3300 to at least 10,000.

Socialist Alliance (SA) defends the gains of NDIS, but wants it transformed it into a complete support system for people with disability, run for and by people with disability. SA rejects the medicalised model of disability and believes that all persons with disability should be supported to achieve a fulfilling life. It opposes the privatisation of the disability support sector and calls for funding to be directed towards not-for-profit community organisations, rather than businesses who exploit vulnerable workers and participants.

The federal election presents a stark choice for people with disability and their supporters. Should the Coalition be returned to office, there can be little doubt that it will destroy the NDIS.

While Labor devised the scheme, there is little evidence that it will guarantee its funding. The Greens are strong supporters of NDIS, not least of all Senator Jordan Steele John, a person with disability and a wheelchair user.

Ultimately, people with disability need to aim higher: NDIS must be defended and extended. People with disability should not be forced to abase themselves to an NDIS planner annually, simply to be supported to live with dignity.

Only a fully funded, needs-based system, administered by the community and governed by people with disability themselves can guarantee our future.

[Graham Matthews is an NDIS participant who is seeking a review of his NDIS plan through the AAT. He is the Socialist Alliance’s spokesperson on NDIS.]