The disability royal commission will change little

When Kennedy, an elderly blind woman, fled a domestic violence situation, she asked the National Disability Insurance Agency to review the amount of funding she was receiving.

“I was basically going to be left in a situation where I was looking at running out of funds and no longer having a live-in carer”, she testified in a submission to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. “I was in a situation where I can’t even leave the house on my own let alone get ... my shopping [or] anything that I need to live.”

The NDIA told her that, until she was down to $500, they wouldn’t consider her to be in an emergency situation.

Kennedy’s story is one of hundreds outlined in the first volume of the commission’s findings, released last month. In twelve volumes, thousands of pages, and hundreds of testimonies, it demonstrates rampant abuse and neglect of people with a disability. Over and over, the pattern is clear. The systematic underfunding of welfare systems in Australia has resulted in dehumanisation and impoverishment.

Testimonies include that of Emani, a woman in her mid-30s with chronic fatigue syndrome, who was forced by limited funding from the National Disability Insurance Scheme to live in the dementia ward of an aged care facility. And there’s Zaria, an Indigenous woman in her late 60s who had her NDIS funding revoked “out of nowhere” after she moved into a residential facility after suffering a stroke.

It is clear that there are systemic and fundamental problems in the provision of services.  Yet most of the commission’s 222 recommendations amount to symbolic gestures and proposals for administrative tinkering. The headline recommendation is for the creation of a Disability Rights Act, in line with the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities—which Australia is already a signatory to. Most reported on has been the advice to abolish segregated education and employment for people with disabilities, which is a worthwhile goal, but sketched out only in very vague terms.

The elephant in the room is that the source of the issue for people with disabilities in Australia is not the language that government bodies use, or their reporting methods. It is the fact that welfare, health care, education, public housing and disability support services have been critically underfunded for years, and that the NDIS itself is a privatised nightmare.

People with disabilities feel the effects of the lack of public services most keenly, on top of the specific inhumanity of the NDIS. When it was introduced under the federal Labor government in 2013, its stated goal was to privatise disability services, replacing public services or those administered by charities with state funding for private businesses, which run them for profit. The result is that those running NDIS businesses reap the rewards of state funding, while delivering the bare minimum of service to people with disabilities.

Included in the royal commission are stories of disability care workers in NDIS businesses. Katina is one. Her facility took on a new client who required two-to-one support, but only two staff members were rostered on for the entire workplace at any one time. She later discovered that the provider “not only received the NDIS funding, but the state government paid an additional $1.2 million to the provider to place this young man somewhere”.

That’s more than $1 million allocated for specialised care that instead went as a handout to the business owner.

At no stage is this reality—the contradiction between the need for care and the need to make profits—confronted by the commission. Only a single recommendation of the 222 has a dollar figure increase in funding attached to it. Cruelly, it advises a few extra million per year be allocated for the appeals and advocacy programs of the NDIS—money for the handling of outraged and despairing NDIS participants, rather than to fund them directly.

The commissioners couldn’t even bring themselves to recommend immediate equality of the minimum wage for people with disability. People with disability can currently be paid as little as $2.90 an hour—but the commission recommends a rise to only half the minimum wage, and to “aim” for 100 percent in the next decade.

It’s possible that many of these recommendations will be adopted, though thus far there has been no official response from the Labor government. It costs governments very little to promise things like “embedding human rights in the design and delivery of disability services”.

In reality, the NDIS itself must be abolished and replaced with a publicly funded scheme free, at the point of service, for those with disabilities.

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