The National Disability Insurance Scheme is a scheme of the Australian Government that funds costs relevant to a disability. Since the scheme was legislated in 2013 our disability service sector has improved somewhat, but there is still room for much improvement. That is according to the feedback provided by the 2020 State of the Disability Sector Report, the Annual Market Survey check on the disability sector by peak body, National Disability Services (NDS).

The Annual Market Survey data captured the experiences of 410 disability service providers. The report’s findings show that while it has been a particularly challenging year for the disability sector, service providers have worked hard to remain viable. Resolutions however are still sought to combat; pricing, processes, workforce shortages and more that are preventing the sector from operating at optimum levels.

The disability sector has had to face bushfires, COVID-19, Australia’s first recession in 30 years and issues with NDIS pricing and processes. Yet 2020 as compared to 2019, has been a year of progress despite seeing many disability providers fighting just to keep their businesses going. “With COVID, the bushfires and Australia’s first recession in three decades, it’s been an enormously challenging year,” said NDS CEO David Moody. “But I think that service providers can all be hugely proud of how they’ve got through it.”

Last year, 67 per cent of providers surveyed said they were making a profit in the last financial year (compared to 54 per cent in 2019) and 66 per cent said they were ‘actively growing’ their business. Less providers are seeking to merge, and only 6 per cent are thinking of leaving the sector completely (down from 11 per cent in 2019).

2020 has been a year in which providers have had to move out of entire regions, get used to physical distancing, find scarce personal protective equipment (PPE), and take on complex new procedures. Many services once only performed face-to-face are now being delivered online. Around forty-two per cent said they thought they were well-supported by the Federal Government during critical times. JobKeeper was a plus for many providers. Others felt their difficulties in accessing PPE, or the way in which disability services providers financial assistance was carried out.

It has become obvious that without a sound NDIS and disability policy framework the needs of Australians with disabilities being met is highly compromised. The message from this survey and Mr Moody is unambiguous, ‘it’s not enough to just help providers survive; there needs to be an NDIS and a disability policy framework that allows them to thrive.’Mr Moody recognised the Federal Government for its COVID measures during 2020, especially JobKeeper. However, he highlighted that, “if Australians with disabilities are to have their needs met, service providers need an NDIS that allows them to thrive, rather than survive.”

Sadly, survey results show 69 per cent of providers had to refuse requests for services in 2020 because they did not have the necessary means to provide them. Many providers are looking at delivering existing programs, rather than adding new ones. Further to this, although there has been an increase in sector- wide profits – the greater problem remains that 50 per cent of small providers are just surviving or showing a loss. Importantly, this is happening while there are still gaps in the market and trying to make certain that people with disabilities have choice and control in the services they would like.

There will soon be 500,000 participants within the NDIS and the projections from some research indicates the labour to support this number will need to double in size over the next three years just to cope. “Australia has around 4.4 million people with disability, and the NDIS will soon have 500,000 participants,” said Moody. “By some measures, our workforce is going to need to double in size in under three years just to keep pace with increasing demand.” To grow and retain workers it is suggested an incentive structure be reviewed. Despite it being reassuring that this is a growing labour force sector, even during a recession, the problem providers are sighting is the difficulty in finding and keeping a workforce that has vital job type needs.

Another issue provider’s expressed concern over in the survey is that there are too many people with a disability still unemployed. Disability Employment Services (DES) reforms show there are problems and the new ‘Supports in Employment’ pricing model for Disability Enterprises is untested. As such, there is an expressed need to maintain full and better government support in establishing procurement targets from social entities as this would go a long way in helping to drive employment opportunities for people with disability.

Providers are aware the NDIA has shown there to be Scheme administration improvements, significantly decreasing payment delays to providers, however the survey shows only 17 per cent of respondents were satisfied with NDIS systems and processes, and nearly two in three thought there were too many rules and regulations.

Overall, there is a call for stronger consultation about implementation, as well as a need for policy design and review, and that the “NDS remain committed to consultation and co- design processes which ensure the NDIS and the wider suite of disability policies work as intended,” State of the Disability Sector 2020.