The Bad and the Ugly… My NDIS Journey

This is the second part of a three part series. I have recently left the NDIS fold. This is my view of the NDIS. My first article focused on a general perception of working within the NDIS environment. This Article will focus on everything bad and ugly. The final article will focus on where the NDIS works well.

A friend of mine recently said to me that the NDIS was set up to fail. It was his views that the NDIS had been stacked with public service bureaucrats that had been trained to say no. Their inclination, he believed, was to deny services as this is a bureaucrats mentality. It is all about the government maintaining fiscal control. So the first response of these bureaucrats is to say no and demand evidence and more evidence. Can a refugee come in? – First response is to say no. Can someone get support to clean their house through the NDIS? First response is to say no. He was not far wrong, because as someone who has worked within the NDIS environment for almost four years this was sometimes my experience, far more often than is acceptable.

Achieving those much vaunted Key Performance Indictors (KPIs) is everything. Quality and need not so much of importance. I worked within both NDIA government teams and within partner teams as well.  I can tell you that KPIs are everything. People don’t necessarily matter.

Don’t get me  wrong. The planners and the LACs care. They want quality. The problem is those above are more concerned with numbers. It’s all about numbers of people that enter the scheme. It has to be as high as possible. Whether the plans are not good is less important. Having the numbers is.

This is true at both NDIA and partner level. For those that do not know, partner organisations are the organisations that host the Local Area Coordinators. These are organisations like the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Uniting, Latrobe Community Health, Feros and so on. The partner organisations have contractual obligations. Achieving what is set out in their contracts in terms of KPIs is their number one priority. Quality? Well that’s another thing. Although they will be loath to admit it.

Let me recount my experience within the NDIS in the government NDIA offices. Every morning we had a meeting. A huddle is what we called it. We had a Management Board thing. The Board basically listed how many plans were submitted each day. Nowhere did it ask if the plans were relevant. No where did it ask if more time was needed. Rather, high output was celebrated. Tweety Pie would get an award for submitting 8 plans. For all we know they were shit and not well thought out  plans. But 8 plans was to be celebrated. Well done Tweety Pie, woooooo hooo. We were often admonished if targets were not met.

It was not much different within partner organisations. Every morning you would list on the board how many plans were expected to be submitted. There was a target and there was a daily count. Bugger the fact that plans could be complicated, reports delayed, participants distressed or whatever. Numbers were the thing baby. If you got them woo hoo … if not you could be black marked as slow and incompetent. It didn’t matter if you took extra care to ensure a plan met needs, if you didn’t meet your target … Well,I guess, it was off with your head.

A lot of people will hate me for saying this but priorities within the NDIA and partner organisations are screwed. It’s wrongly targeted mainly towards numbers and less about quality outcomes. Of late the NDIS has begun to focus more on quality. Great!  I hope this leads to a change in focus. Because as it is now, numbers are everything. Peoples needs a distant second.

I have issues with recruitment processes too. Let me share an experience I had. I applied for a job with a LAC provider in Adelaide.  Now I was first interviewed by video. They sussed out my ability and understanding of the NDIS and found it was pretty good. I had been in the NDIS for a couple of years at that time. I  knew how to use all the NDIS systems, the CRM and the like. I had been doing it successfully for a couple of years. My knowledge of disability and the NDIS could not be questioned.

They asked me to do an online test that basically tested my aptitude around Office platforms. Excel, Word and the like. I will be the first to admit to you that spreadsheets are the bane of my life. I am not very good at them. Word not so bad, but spreadsheets pretty crap.

Anyway, I did the online test and failed. Mostly because of my lack of ability with excel. So here we have a person with 30 years in the disability sector, knows the NDIS inside out, has worked with every major disability group … Rejected because he is not very good with spreadsheets. The ability to use spreadsheets is useful but would not be one of my highest priorities to select a Local Area Coordinator. May be I am just odd like that.

And I was head hunted by NDIS recruiters. Hays found me on LinkedIn. They asked if I would be interested in working as a contractor for the NDIS. I said cool.

I was interviewed by two people within the NDIA. This was a new roll out area and the two people interviewed me and found me to be of good quality. They told Hays that they wanted me and bobs your uncle, I was an NDIS Senior Planner/contractor. That is when the fun started.

The NDIA provided me with Auslan interpreters for training that I had already done. I was three years into the NDIS but I had to do all the base training again. To be fair it was a nice refresher but a bit of a waste off my time.

So four weeks in I started the job proper. The NDIS refused to provide me with interpreters. They insisted that it was Hays responsibility, because technically they were my employer as I was contracted to them. Of course Hays wanted no responsibility. Funny that, considering they got some thing like $20 million to recruit people for the NDIS. Both the NDIS and  Hays refused to budge. Jobaccess approved Auslan for Employment but neither the NDIS nor Hays would sign off on it.

End result was that a worker with over 30 years experience in the sector, three in the NDIS environment, was sat on his arse doing nothing for six weeks. I completed every item of online training in that time. I am sure I am the only person within the NDIS or partner organisation that has done so. But for six weeks a person, me and who was probably their most experienced worker, did nothing and got paid for it. Why? Because no-one wanted to take responsibility for my access needs. And this the NDIS, just appalling.

After six weeks they started to give me plans from partner organisations to check for justifications and reasonable and necessary. I would then have to pass these on to the team leader who would then distribute them around the NDIA to delegates with authority to approve because I could not. ( Contractors are not legally allowed to approve plans, it has to be an NDIA delegate under the legislation) It was messy and uncoordinated. But at least I was working. This was their compromise because if I was at my desk doing that I had no participant contact and they didn’t need to fund interpreters. The team leader patronisingly said to me, ” .. I have every faith you can do this.”  Well I would hope so after 30 years in the sector and three years in the NDIA.

But what a waste of skills and experience. First six weeks doing nothing and then just menial plan checking. And they were paying me a senior planners rate.

Then something really weird happened. You see the NDIS had relied on recruiters like Hays to find workers for them. In this new roll-out area nearly every worker was a contractor. This was because the NDIS had not been able to get its shit together to recruit people properly. The contractors could do plans but not approve them. And suddenly the contracts were about to expire and potentially the region stood to lose more than half of their workers in this new roll-out area.

Now consider that the NDS had had three years to prepare to recruit for this new roll-out area.  Somehow they didn’t. Perhaps they always intended to use contractors, somehow I doubt it. They relied on recruiters like Hays to find workers for them.  I can tell you, with hand on heart, that many workers that agencies like Hays had recruited simply fell well below the mark as to what was required. So what did the NDIS do? They told all of the contractors to write a letter, no more than 400 words, as to why they should work at the NDIA outlining their experience and understanding of the NDIS.  Based on these 400 word letters they approved everyone in my team as delegates, bar one. Some were really good and others were complete dross. That folks, is the recruitment strategy of the NDIS … Numbers count, quality not so much. David Bent lives.

Processes and the NDIS should really never be mentioned in the same sentence. The delays that people talk about within the NDIS are appalling and very real. The big downfall was, and probably still is, processing assistive technology. I won’t attempt to explain it fully here but people waited exorbitant amounts of time for crucial equipment like wheelchairs. Not months, but going into years. Some people were prisoners in their homes because they simply had no way to get around.

Home modifications were not much better. This year I assisted someone to get a ramp and a new wheelchair. They had been waiting for over three years. While it was deemed necessary it some how took for ever to get processed. I managed to get it approved and the participant was close to tears. He said  when his ramp was finished he would send me a photo with a sign saying GARY IS BEST. Last I heard there were further delays because ramp quoted did not meet council requirements. But at least he had a new wheelchair with power assisted wheels so that getting about did not leave him in excruciating pain.

I wish I could say this was uncommon, but sadly it is not. The NDIS reputation for inefficiency in this area is well earned and deserved. Their insistence on only base grade technology to save money often means that it costs more in the long run because this technology can be inferior in quality and requires more maintenance. I have seen people with pressure sores because they have outgrown their chair and are waiting for the NDIS to get their wheelchair approval processed. I have seen participants in excruciating pain because they can no longer self propel ageing wheelchairs. I have seen family supports put at risk because they have to lift their family members out of bed, into wheelchairs and into showers without the assistance of lifting technology. I have seen them on the brink of exhaustion – All simply because of the inefficancy of the NDIS.

It is true that the NDIS have worked hard to clean up the area. This is great but it still leaves much to be desired.

My other point of contention is how the NDIS treats parents and family carers. They call these people informal supports. There are a group of delegates and team leaders who insist that the NDIS is not to replace informal supports. In my view some of these take it to the extreme. In my previous article I outlined how Mark Bagshaw was initially refused vehicle modifications because the NDIS delegate said his wife could drive him around. This is an example of the NDIS interpreting the rule of replacing informal supports to the extreme.

There are many people that live at home. I have had delegates refuse support because Mum and Dad can provide the support. But the thing is that the participant might be an adult. They might be 25 years old. Yet the NDIS delegate will rule that informal supports are available and deny or reduce support. Of course this is a misinterpretation of the NDIS legislation.  It is true that the NDIS do not want informal supports replaced, they want families to stay together, so to speak. However, the legislation is also about:

  1. Encouraging independence
  2. Encouraging economic participation ( For both participant and informal supports.)
  3. Maintaining informal supports so that families and support networks don’t get exhausted and break down.

So at what age does someone stop relying on mum and dad for their support. 30 years old? 40 years old? 60 years old? Believe me these are all ages where people with a disability are still living at home. How much support are informal supports expected to provide that is “reasonable”? Do they have to be up all night? Do they have to give up work to look after their family member with a disability? Do they have a right to support for their kids to access things like child care or after school care because these service generally lack the expertise to support people with a disability. My view of the last question and all questions related to work is yes. Why? Because the NDIS was established with a prime goal of economic participation and maintaining informal supports .

Many parents access services to enable them to work full-time. Indeed they often must because in today’s world to pay the mortgage and bills requires both parents to work (Let’s not forget the single parent either). Yet often supports to parents are denied on the basis of parental responsibility. The NDIS do not clearly state what reasonable parental responsibility is either.  Delegates and LACs kind of make it up as they go along.

It is simple to me. Parents have a right to work as many hours as they can and access services to enable them to do so. If they cannot access these services because of their child’s disability then the additional support required is the cost of disability and should be met. But all too often it is not. There is just a hardline view of parental responsibility and a harsh view that the NDIS is not a baby sitting service.

Bilateral agreements clearly state what is NDIA and what is state responsibility. The area of after school care and child care is not well defined. I don’t believe it is the education departments responsibility as the care is usually provided by private contractors. One could say it is the private contractors responsibility but I have no doubt they could go to the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and successfully claim unjustifiable hardship. More importantly kids with disability have a right to access activities and interact with peers. These things are crucial for social skills development. I  believe the NDIS hardline approach to this area is wrong and needs to be reviewed because this hardline approach is placing extreme strain on many parents.

My other pet beef about the NDIS is the inconsistency of the decision making. Let us use Deaf and hard of hearing as an example. Some parents get Auslan training in their plans, as they should. As a planner I would encourage the use of Auslan training for the whole family unit. Do it at home with extended family like grand parents so that the deaf child gets access to communication with everyone. Some parents get it, some do not. Some delegates say, “ … Your child has a cochlear implant and hearing aids so Auslan is not necessary.”  

No, I am not kidding. Just last week on little Auslaners Facebook I noted that another family had been denied Auslan. It is wrong. That delegates and many LACS do not understand the basic principle of inclusion and language development, or do not attempt to find out more about it, pains me. Either way the inconsistency is a unacceptable. No family should be denied.

Then there is how they work out how much Auslan Interpreting to provide. One LAC organisation insisted that 6 hours was the limit and refused to budge. They had wrongly interpreted the legislation that states participants have the right to six hours of interpreting for implementation. Somehow their interpretation was that 6 hours was all the deaf individual could get. I had a participant who has a Phd and volunteers their time for various community causes three or four times a week. They worked out that to be fully involved that they required nearly 600 hours of Auslan interpreting a year. She got 81. Meanwhile just up the road a Deaf family got 600 hours between them.

NDIS instructions are that a typical support package is 75 hours a year. However, there may be exceptional circumstances that mean a participant can get more. For example, they may need counselling with their private psychologist. This can be factored in and more than 75 hours can be provided. They may be building a house, going through divorce and so on. Everyone’s circumstance es are different.

A good LAC or delegate will know how to unpack this and come up with an hourly figure per year that is required. I’ve had elite deaf sportspersons get extra hours so that they can attend coaching camps and clinics for example. The legislation allows for extra but sometimes due to lack of training, knowledge or just pure bloody mindedness LAC or delegates degree the 75 hours is what the deaf person will get, and sometimes even less than that. These sorts of incionsistencies are a large part of the reason that the NDIS has such a bad reputation.

And don’t get me started on the lack of support for participants to implement plans. The push to cut back support coordination is misguided. The inability to monitor progress of plans is very real because LAC’s and planners are swamped with just pumping out plans. Often money in plans goes unspent because participants simply do not understand their plans and don’t know how to proceed. It comes to billions of dollars. This was deemed as an underspend by the Morrison Government and directed to drought relief.

It is anything but an underspend it is simply a lack of support for participants to utilise their plans properly. It means that participants miss out on crucial supports and leads to great stress for participants and support networks. I have long felt that both the NDIA and LAC partners need a specialist monitoring department to ensure participants are spending their plans. If not they can then provide the necessary support to do so. This area is a mess and in great need of sorting out.

And I could go on. When it’s bad it’s horrendous. This happens far, far too often. However, there is a lot of good out there. My next article will highlight what happens when the NDIS gets it right. When it’s good it’s brilliant. In the meantime I hope the new NDIS Minister is on top of these issues and is doing all he can to fix it. Early signs are that he is. Here is hoping that the NDIS can become more efficient and consistent because, frankly, the current criticisms are well warranted. It is not just teething problems anymore!

 

 

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