The NDIS 10 Years On – Barwon Takes Stock

by | Sep 5, 2023 | Ability News, NDIS

The National Disability Insurance Scheme was launched ten years ago with an experimental trial in Victoria’s Barwon region. Ability.News Correspondent Danielle Kutchel prepared this special report on what worked and what didn’t, and how the region’s changed today

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Ten years ago, the National Disability Insurance Scheme began with a trial in Victoria’s Barwon region.

Stretching westward from Geelong to the South Australian border, Victoria’s Barwon region was just what the Labor government needed. The compact mix of city and rural communities appeared to offer an ideal test-bed for the new scheme – perhaps not least because it encompassed Corangamite, one of the most marginal electorates in Australia.

There were high hopes for the NDIS. Barwon, a compact region with more than 5000 people with disability in the Barwon region seemed like an ideal place for the experiment to begin.

A new beginning

Disability advocates embraced the introduction of the NDIS and were quick to endorse the scheme, expressing hope it would finally give people with disability choice and control over their lives. Today, a decade on, the NDIS has swelled enormously. It covers more than half a million people across the country and is both being applauded for changing lives for the better and under fire for exploding costs.

So what’s the verdict today from where the scheme began? Has it changed lives for the better?

Executive director of Colac Otway Regional Advocacy Service (CORAS), Paul Brady, well remembers what disability services in the region were like prior to the introduction of the NDIS and he has no doubts.

“I think if you talk to any advocacy agency, they’ll say their workload has absolutely increased, either double or even more.” 

“I speak to a lot of my peers and particularly in the regional areas and everyone’s experience the same thing. It’s just the workload, the work demand. It’s just growing so much,” Brady adds. 

Meeting a massive need

Much of Brady’s early work focused on helping residents of one of Victoria’s last disability institutions, Colanda, located in Colac. Although the work was similar before the NDIS launched – Brady said CORAS would deal with “plenty” of housing and Centrelink issues – demand for services has “doubled, if not more” with the introduction of the scheme.

Brady has been with CORAS since it began in 1989. The not-for-profit provides assistance to people with disability, anything from help with accessing Centrelink or the NDIS to assisting with housing or the justice system. CORAS also acts as an advocate for people with disability, following through on requests for reasonable and necessary supports and services.

Often people who engaging with CORAS today need support to navigate changes to their NDIS plans. Others need help to deal with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). Without such support, Brady said people were “floundering”.

A major hurdle for many people in accessing government services is the need to be literate, both in computers and, perhaps even more critically, able to navigate the language used by the system. This can be a problem for a vulnerable community.

“We feel the system is built now more around people who need to be a bit more technically savvy. Everyone assumes people can read or understand when they get letters – well, no, not everyone can do that. Not everyone can use a computer,” Brady explained.

Brady will be interested to see what the Disability Royal Commission recommends for regional services, and said more in-person advocacy is sorely needed for people with disability living in regional and rural areas.

Every area has its own issues

Another surprise has been that unrolling the scheme in a regional area has brought its own problems. Sometimes having the concentrated mass of services found in metropolitan areas provides a huge advantage that rural areas miss out on.

“It’s really important to us as rural advocates and regional advocates that our clients maintain the opportunity and capacity to be able to work at a local level, because unfortunately the NDIS seems to be, to me, built around highly-resourced, metropolitan, big-city areas,” he said.

He’d also like to see incentives for therapists and practitioners to move out to regional areas to serve the disability community.

“The real story out in the regions is the services aren’t there, the services just aren’t accessible or available. It’s imperative that the right level of support be put into people to engage with services. I think it’s at a crossroads… because these people are at a disadvantage.”

The NDIS is now 10 years old and undergoing a significant review, which has shone a light on people’s experiences of the scheme – and in many cases, they haven’t been as positive as was expected a decade ago.

Brady was involved in the launch of the Barwon NDIS rollout, and said the scheme today is “nowhere near what was first proposed”. 

“There’s a lot of improvements to make, and I know you won’t fix it overnight. To me, the worry is about the people who aren’t engaging [with the NDIS] or who haven’t engaged yet. If they’re not picked up, particularly in country areas, by a GP or a school, they’ll just miss out,” he said.

The NDIS review will be critical

He’s hopeful that the NDIS review, due to hand down its report in October, has listened to those on the ground to get an idea of what’s really needed to fix the NDIS.

Despite the challenges, Brady said the NDIS has “absolutely” been valuable for people with disability. Looking across the region, he said he sees kids able to gain mobility through the therapies they can access on the NDIS; people with disability accessing physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, employment opportunities and even appropriate housing. There are kids now able to socialise through therapies and holiday programs.

“[It] gives them a really optimistic future. It’s not all doom and gloom. I get annoyed with the gaps and the people who seem to be missed and that have to fight and struggle for lots of things.

“It’s rewarding to see so many happy faces and people who have got opportunities that they would never have had without the NDIS.”

Positive impact on health services

Another unanticipated effect of the introduction of the NDIS has been the changing role of the local health services in providing disability care.

Kate Bibby, spokesperson for Barwon Health, said while the organisation had always served people with disability, “the NDIS has seen a shift to an increased use of private service providers for rehabilitation and primary care needs.”

“Whilst Barwon Health still provides some of these services to NDIS participants, the emphasis of Barwon Health’s input is related to health needs rather than disability-related maintenance or care needs,” she said.

She said the NDIS had had a positive impact, including by providing “housing and care” for people with significant and permanent disabilities.

This is another aspect of the NDIS – often not recognised by headlines about the growing cost of the scheme – is that it is growing the sector and reducing the burden on other aspects of healthcare. Bibby adds that Barwon Health has seen a reduced demand despite its growth. The health organisation’s services now have the space to provide more access to rehabilitation services within the private sector.

“We look forward to seeing further expansion of services for clinical and support needs along with continuing to partner with families who access both NDIS and health services, in an effort to ensure that everyone in our community can receive the best care suited to their circumstances,” she said

Further reading:              

Medical Journal of Australia, 3 April, 2023 – More change still needed (An article by Jennifer Smith‐Merry, John Gilroy and Annmaree Watharow) 

NDIS Minister Press Release, 1 July, 2023 – Decade of Transformation