News and Comment

Preparing for change: A roundtable discussion on disability reform

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Given that she’s in the midst of orchestrating the biggest reform of disability care and support in Australian history, OPM was delighted that Senator Jan McLucas, Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers, had the time to participate in our roundtable discussion last week. Meeting with experts from charities, providers and campaign groups in the field of social care, Senator McLucas made the most of her visit to the UK, talking through the opportunities and obstacles presented by reform.

Unlike the UK, Australia is currently in the process of moving the responsibility for disabled policy and service delivery out of the health system and into a standalone disabled services department. It is hoped that this approach will address regional inequities in the current system which see some states and territories investing much more money in disability services than others.

Launching next July, the new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), will be a Medicare-type social insurance system that aims to respond more effectively to increased demand for services in an economically frugal climate. To do this the NDIS will place a stronger emphasis on choice, giving users a greater say in the services they receive. There will also be an increased focus on early intervention as a proven method of limiting expense.

A particularly hot topic of discussion was how shifting to this person-centred model, in which greater power is given to disabled people, requires a change in the culture around disability services. Those who’ve experienced this transition in the UK spoke of the importance of considering and including the friends and families of disabled people in the services offered and praised the creative work played by voluntary organisations in doing just this.

Rich Watts, Director of Policy and Development at ecdp, was encouraged by “the importance attached to the role of peer-led support for disabled people navigating the new system”. He said: “The evidence of peer-led support in England, through disabled people’s user-led organisations, is that outcomes are better for people, so it was great to hear the Senator acknowledging this”

For Andrea Sutcliffe, Chief Executive of the Social Care Institute for Excellence, the chance Australia has to shape its policy with research findings is particularly exciting. “Australia has a real opportunity to strengthen the knowledge base about what works in social care and support by commissioning research at this early stage in their reform programme. This will help to benefit disabled people not just in Australia but across the world too.”

There was also debate around what constitutes the “reasonable and necessary support” legislated for in the NDIS; with attendees cautioning against the kind of restrictive processes that can constrain disabled people and instead suggested a more flexible approach that users find empowering.  Andy Kaye, Policy Manager for the RNIB felt “the discussion tackled some interesting questions on the social model, which is currently one of the biggest issues in the disability movement, including: ‘how far has it taken us?’ And ‘are the goals of independent living and greater choice and control really working for us as disabled people?’”

It bodes well for Australia that during this crucial planning stage, such attention is being given to charities and other bodies that represent the interests of disabled people. One hopes that come July when the policy is rolled out, these viewpoints are allowed to make a tangible impact – but right now there’s certainly plenty of reasons to be optimistic.