Equality in service ‘big challenge’

National Disability Services state manager James O’Brien and National Disability Insurance Agency director of engagement Alexandra Gunning speak with Beechworth’s Peter and Susan Royle after yesterday’s forum at The Cube. Picture: JOHN RUSSELL

National Disability Services state manager James O’Brien and National Disability Insurance Agency director of engagement Alexandra Gunning speak with Beechworth’s Peter and Susan Royle after yesterday’s forum at The Cube. Picture: JOHN RUSSELL

ENSURING rural and regional people with disabilities have the same access to services as those in big cities will be one of the biggest challenges facing the Border when the national disability insurance scheme rolls out.

On top of that comes replacing an ageing workforce, a lack of disability-appropriate housing, and a deregulated market in service providers, National Disability Services state manager James O’Brien said.

Mr O’Brien made the comments while addressing a forum of about 40 people at The Cube yesterday, each keen to hear how the NDIS roll-out in Barwon had progressed — and what it would mean for them.

Among them were Peter and Susan Royle of Beechworth, who believe it was the single-most informative discussion on the NDIS since it was first announced.

Mrs Royle, 58, was 21 when she became wheelchair-bound.

While she was still working full-time as a teacher, she was ineligible for government support, something that will change under the NDIS.

“It’s about 50 years too late,” she said of the scheme as a whole.

“We’re just so used to having to do everything for ourselves.”

While the couple welcomes the scheme, they’re sceptical of what the future will hold, particularly in terms of the potential for the federal government to wind things back.

“That’s the precarious thing with governments,” Mr Royle said.

But this was not of concern to Mr O’Brien who was “comfortable, at this point” with the Abbott government’s funding and approach.

Rather, the challenges the Border will face are primarily geographic — Mr O’Brien said in opening the market to for-profit service providers, there was a risk of bigger providers choosing not to set up in rural areas.

“We can’t have a situation where Melbourne gets better services,” he said.

“We want to make sure the design takes into account the needs of rural and remote Australia and they get the same choices.”

How this was to be achieved was yet to be determined, he said, but it “won’t be a case of the market determining everything”.

The National Disability Insurance Agency — the peak body for handling the scheme — will also deregulate prices in the second half of this year, theoretically leading to “greater quality and lower prices”.

Mr O’Brien said another 25,000 employees in the sector would be needed by 2020 to cope with demand, as well as to replace 20 per cent of the existing workforce as they retire.

While the scheme roll-out in Barwon was not without teething problems, he said there was already diversification of services and a reduction in the number of people waiting for support.

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