NDIS lacks service providers in Indigenous areas, advocate warns

‘The NDIS is market-based and there are people to purchase, but nothing to purchase,’ says First Peoples Disability Network

National disability insurance agency
National Disability Insurance Agency has acknowledged service provision and infrastructure as the significant challenges of launching the NDIS in regional and remote areas. Photograph: Julian Smith/AAP

Indigenous Australians face being signed up to national disability insurance scheme (NDIS) plans with no services to purchase, an advocate has said after visiting the Northern Territory trial site.

The NDIS launched a trial site in Barkly in July and the chief executive of the First Peoples Disability Network (FPDN), Damian Griffis, visited last week. He said that while they were “reassured” by the progress of a few weeks, the fundamental challenge would be the lack of actual services.

“The NDIS is market-based and there are people to purchase, but nothing to purchase. There’s no services to purchase,” he said.

“We need to look at the ways people with disability are supported in other parts of the world without services. It could be paying family members or locals to be service providers.”

Griffis said the problem went well beyond Indigenous communities in Northern Territory and into many regional and remote areas of Australia.

“The challenge will be people signing up to plans with nothing to purchase. It’s a big problem,” he said.

Griffis said it was “critical” that mass service providers were not allowed to move into the Indigenous communities and that Indigenous service providers were given the support they needed to expand.

He said the mass service providers would not have the same connection to community as locals.

“We also need to more generally see the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) tie its work to the Close the Gap agenda and we are seeing evidence of that,” he said.

“We need disability as a new standalone target in Closing the Gap.”

The FPDN released a blueprint for Closing the Gap disability targets last year, which the government is yet to adopt. Among the proposed targets was 90% of Indigenous people who were eligible for the NDIS to be signed up within a decade. Other targets were related to access to education and employment and how the criminal justice system treated people with disabilities.

Griffis said the NDIA should be incorporating the work in its strategy for the NDIS rollout.

“I felt reassured by the amount of work the agency has done in past few weeks but the challenges need to be properly understood, there’s a lot of worries,” he said.

“The other area of concern is the understanding of the prevalence of disability in the Indigenous community. We believe it’s significantly underreported. If they do not get the baseline figure correct, it’s a major concern.”

Griffis said the federal government had an obvious commitment to people with disability, which was appreciated.

“There’s very significant challenges in the Barkly trial, it needs to be a trial in the truest sense of the word,” he said.

“Having said that, none of it’s insurmountable, with innovation and flexibility [it can work]. We need the government to stay the course because change is going to take a while.”

The NDIA has acknowledged “service provision and infrastructure“ as the significant challenges of launching the NDIS in regional and remote area. It has established an advisory group of key local community members in the NT, with a spokeswoman saying it was a different experience to launching in states such as New South Wales and Victoria.

“The National Disability Insurance Agency had to take into consideration rural, remote, language and cultural issues to develop effective plans to inform and educate the Barkly shire’s remote communities about the National Disability Insurance Scheme,” she said.

A higher level of support was provided to NDIS staff in Barkly to support remote service delivery, including four-wheel-drive and first aid training.

She said communication was obviously a challenge in the area and the NDIA was working with local health centres to talk face-to-face about the NDIS and start the planning process. Aboriginal interpreter services have been used by the agency in the lead-up and during launch.

The spokeswoman said the NDIA was developing “the local market to include specialist disability services”.

“Currently we have five local service providers in the process of registering with us, which means good employment opportunities for people living in Tennant Creek and on remote communities, and it will help keep funding local and boost the Barkly economy,” she said.