News and Comment

Reforming disability services: lessons from Australia

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Next Friday, September 7th, we are delighted to welcome the Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers, Senator Jan McLucas, who will be visiting OPM as part of her stay in London for the Paralympic Games.

Senator McLucas will be participating in a round table discussion with experts in the field of disability services and support. As part of the shared learning exercise participants will be discussing major reforms underway in the Australian disability services system – particularly the creation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a person-centred approach that incorporates a vastly enlarged role for non-government organisations. The impact these changes are likely to have on disabled people is sure to be a hot topic of discussion.

One unfortunate commonality shared by the UK and Australia is the considerable financial pressures placed on their governments to reduce budgets. For example, in our work with the RNIB we found that in some instances this had manifested itself in an “adversarial” relationship between the public and local authorities, such as when parents explored pupils’ entitlement to special educational needs.

In Australia, the NDIS reforms are predicted to lead to an increase in the number of disability services offered. However, with financial pressures still acute, the Australian government are proposing an innovative solution to keep running costs down: recruiting extra numbers of staff currently outside the workforce, including those currently on the Disability Support Pension. The rationale is that this approach will increase workforce participation and add to the government’s tax base, an approach that in practice could mean that many end users of disability services will also be those paid to administer them. However there’s no doubt that there will be challenges in implementing this approach, as shown by the trial of the scheme in Victoria, where there was evidence of underinvestment in workers’ training, little supervision, and a dramatic increase in the number of ‘casual carers’.

Here in the UK, the result of cuts to services previously supplied by the government was that local, voluntary and community groups have become more vital to disabled users than ever before. Down Under, the National Disability Services group is already anticipating a similar effect. Their challenge now is to ensure that these previously privately funded bodies can become “accountable for the expenditure of public funds”. At the same time, non-governmental organisations are likely to be worried by news that they will have to “provide substantial supplementation through fundraising, volunteers, efficiencies and innovative support arrangements” – a proposal that for British readers is likely to call to mind The Big Society.

If Australia’s shift to a model where disabled people have greater choice among an increased number of service providers is to be as painless as possible, then there is a real need to communicate to disabled people, their families and carers, how these changes will affect them in practice. In our work with the RNIB we found that accessing information is a perennial problem for disabled people, with many reporting they found out about services by chance, sometimes after years without knowing such a service existed. The key to solving this problem is to make good on the Government’s goal of putting “people with disability at the centre of service delivery”. This is no easy task and is likely to require extensive and rigorous dialogue with disabled people; but as one visually impaired consultee OPM spoke to made depressingly clear: “there are so many people who talk for us who haven’t got a clue what life is like for us”.