Disability advocates call for changes to NDIS support in schools

Michael Williams
Michael Williams

Advocacy groups, including the Victorian Government, have shared their frustrations with the Federal Government over its management of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Despite the existence of several specialist services, almost all school-aged people currently living with a disability are using the NDIS.

While a large portion of those using NDIS seek support with autism, most funding goes to those with physical support needs.

Yet, recent reports have suggested people have been incentivised to seek NDIS support for autism, leading the Federal government to reconsider eligibility rules.

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Practical early intervention needed

Leading National Disability Sector Advocate and Co-founder at Developing Australian Communities River Night says he is appalled by the lack of practical early intervention and support delivery for school-aged Australians.

He says it hasn’t been people looking to ‘rig’ the system as some media sites have suggested, but rather a lack of alternative options for people with milder forms of autism.

“We hear talk from our federal government about caps and controls, limits and targets for school-aged children accessing the NDIS,” he says.

“This isn’t about stopping access to services. It is about understanding the NDIS is not the only option and should not be seen as the only option. The reason school-aged children under 14 years old are so hugely represented as a population trying to access the NDIS is because school and school years are where a significant focus is on early intervention and support.”

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Mr Night also questions why “we have a scheme that funds and works outside of the school setting trying to do the heavy lifting in terms of intervention”.

Supporting young people with autism matters

Disability advocates have expressed frustration toward the Education Department’s ‘double-dipping’, saying they must spend funds supporting young people in a school setting and ordinary NDIS spending.

Mr Night says a full-time in-school professional model would be more cost-effective.

“If we use the NDIS and ABS statistics, let’s look at a practical extreme example,” he says.

“If I had a school of 500 students with 12 per cent accessing NDIS, let’s say each child is funded between $5000 and $ 30,000 a year through NDIS to access services outside of school. That’s potentially 60 children with a budget of between $300,000 to over a million collectively in spending from the NDIS outside of the school setting.”

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But because those young people spend each day at school, Mr Night says the Education Department has to spend their funds to support these young people in the school setting, on top of the NDIS spending.

“Instead of this double-up, it would be a fraction of the cost to employ full-time professionals in each school where school-aged children are spending their time.”

Tightening eligibility rules

After reports the NDIS had incentivised people to seek autism diagnoses, Minister for the NDIS Bill Shorten committed to tightening eligibility rules.

“The [NDIS] was designed for people who need assistance with core functioning, with the most profound disabilities,” says Minister Shorten.

“I don’t think the scheme was ever intended just to say, ‘I have a diagnosis, therefore I’m on the scheme’. One thing that we have to have a conversation about is rather than just saying, ‘I’ve got autism 2. Therefore, I’m on the scheme,’ it’s, ‘How does my autism affect my learning?’ Obviously, every person is an individual and unique, and it all depends on evidence.”

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By preferring to see a shift away from a diagnosis writing people into the scheme,” Mr Shorten believes it will prevent “everyone” getting the diagnosis.

Alleged abuse of autism diagnoses should not be taken seriously

CEO of not-for-profit organisation Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA) Skye Kakoschke-Moore says reports suggesting people are taking advantage of autism diagnoses should not be taken seriously.

“I think it’s unhelpful, and it’s misleading to imply that families are pursuing diagnoses to get financial support,” she says.

“If the rest of society were better designed to support people with disability, then there would not be so much reliance on the NDIS, but at the moment, alternative support structures didn’t exist. What we’re hoping this NDIS review will do is present the community with a plan for all children and young people with disability to get the support when they need them.”

Whether or not that support includes access to the NDIS, Ms Kakoschke-Moore says “what’s important is that those supports are there, and that families and children aren’t left to fall through the cracks because government and states and territories aren’t working together to fund the support ecosystem properly”.

Minister Shorten did suggest alternative models were on the cards, however the Federal Government has announced it will be slashing funding to the NDIS. As it stands, it is one of their largest budgetary pressures, forecast to cost $100 billion by 2032.

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Budgetary pressures are having a huge impact

State Governments have shared their frustration with these decisions, as they commit to a 50/50 split in NDIS funding.

It is worth noting that a cap on state funding has led to a 66 per cent blowout for the Federal Government.

The Victorian Government invests $235 million to support students and children with disability.

A Victorian Government spokesperson told EducationDaily the following:

“Given the previous commitment by the Commonwealth Minister that there would be no changes to eligibility and no cap on participants in the NDIS, it’s up to the Commonwealth Government to start being upfront with Victorians about how it intends to manage the scheme in a sustainable way that doesn’t leave Victorians worse off – or footing the bill,” the spokesperson said.

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“We’ve always said we’ll carefully consider any recommendations that come out of the NDIS Review alongside those of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

“In the meantime, we’ll continue to get on and invest in disability services over and above our contribution to the NDIS, helping one in six Victorians with a disability to get the support they deserve.”

Greater in-school support options must be explored

River Night argues that recent issues with the NDIS further highlights the need for an in-school professional model.

“Schools and teaching staff are in desperate need of practical support, so an overemphasis on a federal scheme that doesn’t fund support in educational settings and doesn’t boost state education resources is plain odd in practical terms,” he says.

“With over one billion dollars a year in some states already being spent by state Education Departments to support children with disabilities, why do we see so many parents running and grabbing onto NDIS as a lifeboat to address unmet needs?

“There is no doubt that individual intervention services are effective; however, it would be far more cost-effective to predominantly fund professionals to work within each school to support early intervention programs for students, including those with learning difficulties who may never access the NDIS, support teachers and the whole school community as the major focus.

“There are programs, early intervention and disability support professionals in our state education department desperate for additional funds and resources so spending billions on outside-of-school options as our primary focus does not make sense.”

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Ministers will meet next month

NDIS architect Professor Bruce Bonyhady, who co-chaired the review, agrees with Mr Night’s sentiments, arguing that children’s developmental difficulties and disabilities are mainstream issues that should be serviced in homes, early childhood settings, schools or family centres rather than clinical settings.

The Federal Government says it has been working through recommendations of an independent NDIS review that have not been made public.

Cabinet will discuss the scheme’s future with State and Territory first ministers at a national cabinet next month.

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Michael R Williams has been writing for regional newspapers for the past 3 years, including delivering the Longreach Leader to its 100th year. He is passionate about the opportunity journalism offers him to interview and tell the stories of Australians with a broad and diverse range of backgrounds. He is an obsessive reader and podcast listener.