Bumping into barriers on the way to social inclusion with the NDIS

Bars, gyms, the homes of friends and all the places that community life happens; it’s no secret they are often inaccessible for people with disabilities. The NDIS funds individual packages and community linkages to reduce this social exclusion. Jen Hargrave from Women with Disabilities Victoria says the fledgling scheme may need external architecture to increase social inclusion.

photo of Jen Hargrave https://au.linkedin.com/in/jen-hargrave-381426146

photo of Jen Hargrave https://au.linkedin.com/in/jen-hargrave-381426146

Have you ever looked for a bar to have a drink in Melbourne? The World’s Most Liveable City has more cool bars than you can poke a stick at. There’s pretty much a bar to suit every taste; cheap or classy, gluten free or vegan, even if you just want a glass of sparkling water.

But if you go looking for a bar to welcome some friends who use wheelchairs your options narrow… considerably. Then say if you want a bar with a wheelchair accessible toilet, suitable ambience and a broad menu, you’ll be looking for a while. In my recent searches, the way bar managers handled access enquiries varied. Some sincerely apologised that their building’s lift had not worked for months. Others were completely blank on basic access requirements or in fact how the topic related in any way to their business.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to be able to wave a copy of the Commonwealth’s Disability Discrimination Act or building code like a magic wand and make these barriers disappear. Our national regulations though, don’t have the status to do such things. 

Yes, Melbourne is one of the country’s richest municipalities. Yes, the state and national governments have written endless reports about the value of social inclusion for people with disabilities - inclusion that one could gain from activities like meeting up with friends for a drink.  

Social inclusion is important for people with disabilities

The ‘1 in 4’ polls by Deakin and Scope found that Australians living with a disability feel excluded from society. “Almost 90% of people with a disability who completed the survey said their needs were not met for social contact with others, going to cafes, bars or pubs, being respected by other people and feeling valued.”

“Health and social inclusion are inextricably intertwined,” reads a report from Victoria’s 2014 Parliamentary Inquiry into Social Inclusion and Disability. “Poor health and wellbeing can undermine a person’s capacity and desire to participate in the social, economic and cultural dimensions of society. In turn, social exclusion has consequences for people’s health and wellbeing and can result in a limited capacity to participate.”

While NDIS packages are funding some individuals to get out and about, I’m not so sure society’s markets are ready for us. Leaving bar access aside, let’s look at the community access available through an NDIS plan. Jo lives in an NDIS ready urban area.* She is a member of Women with Disabilities Victoria who shares her story of trying to fulfil her health goals. Given the opportunity to fulfil her health dreams, she investigated a gym membership. Hazzah!

When Jo explored the local gym choices there was only one she could travel to. She rocked up enthusiastically to the 24-hour gym to be told, without a thorough assessment, that due to her disability she should not be there unsupervised. Staff would only be available to supervise her four hours a day. Jo had to ask herself, why would she spend a large proportion of her funding on a 24 service that was so reduced, and did I mention, so rude to her?

Jo took the conundrum back to an NDIS planner who advised Jo to ditch the gym and reach her health goals by walking along the river. Jo explains the problem with that recommendation.

Strolling by the river is not recommended for people like me who rely on echo location. An open space with a ditch is a pretty risky environment, most totally blind people would say. Anyway, how am I supposed to get my heart rate up if I’m navigating a danger zone.  

In contrast, some people interviewed for the ‘Choice, Control and the NDIS’ study recently conducted by the University of Melbourne said individual funding had increased their social inclusion. “It’s helped me branch out into more social things… having access to a taxi.” It is fantastic to hear such benefits. However, it is not personal resourcing alone that permits social inclusion. Discriminatory attitudes, exclusive social practices and inaccessible buildings can be blockers out in the world. 

In a consultation of Women with Disabilities Victoria members, women highlighted some of the physical barriers to shops, road crossings and houses:

My social life used to be visiting friends and family. Now [with an acquired disability) I'm isolated and alone. Homes aren't universally designed. If I want to see people they have to come to me. Public buildings are a bit more accessible. But homes are where a lot of socialising happens. (Shaunagh)

New NDIS funding for community inclusion through ILC

This year sees the welcome introduction of a new type of NDIS funding with a focus on community inclusion. COAG have endorsed a framework that will “ensure people with disability connect with and access mainstream supports” through Information Linkages and Capacity Building (ILC) funding. Positively, the framework states that any person affected by a disability should be able to benefit from ILC, even if they are not eligible for the NDIS.

The Productivity Commission reports that, “ILC will gradually increase over transition (from $33 million in 2016-17 to $131 million in 2019-20)” as state funded activities are withdrawn. The program promises a long-term savings, building community capacity to reduce individuals’ needs, increasing health and wellbeing to increase economic participation.

The costs and benefits of the ILC program will be reviewed in 2023. I wonder how much impact will it have, and how vulnerable is the fund’s future.

The United Kingdom provides our model for the NDIS and there, Independent Living Centres have driven community inclusion. Centre funding has been slashed through austerity. Community building programs are not attached to individuals so can be at the highest risk of funding cuts without great protest. In Australia, the Productivity Commission's position paper warns, “It is a false economy to have too few resources for ILC activities in the transition period” (p56).

Generations of disability advocates have spent their lives calling for basic reforms like universal access building regulations and a power-boost to the Disability Discrimination Act. While the enormity of the NDIS transformation is occupying advocates and professionals alike, these well-practiced advocacy positions are needed now more than ever. Old fashioned regulation and statutory powers may be the key to maximise community access in the new age of individualised market-based disability supports.

*Jo is not her real name


Thanks to Maree Willis for informing this piece with her knowledge as a self advocate and NDIS observer.

Thanks to Women with Disabilities Victoria and the ‘Choice, Control and the NDIS’ team for sharing research to support this piece.

About the author

@Jen_Hargrave is Senior Policy Officer at Women with Disabilities Victoria. Jen edits WDV’s Violence Quarterly – subscribe for news and resources related to safety from violence for women with disabilities. Jen was also a Community Researcher in the ‘Choice, Control and the NDIS’ research project lead by A/Prof Deborah Warr, A/Prof Helen Dickinson and Dr Sue Olney.

External links

Choice, Control and the NDIS report, 2017 http://socialequity.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/2364499/Choice-Control-and-the-NDIS-Report-Melbourne-Social-Equity-Institute.pdf  

Productivity Commission’s NDIS Costs Position Overview, 2017

Australian Network for Universal Housing Design’s Proposal for Change to the National Construction Code

ABC News story, Strengthening Australia’s disability laws, 2013

Productivity Commission’s Review of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, 2004