Disability services sector surviving, not thriving

Seven years into the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and Australia's disability service sector seems to be faring comparatively better - but still operating well short of full strength.

That's the key take out from this year's State of the Disability Sector Report, the annual check-up on the disability sector by service provider peak body, National Disability Services (NDS).

Despite the unexpected disruption of COVID-19 and ongoing (and predictable) concerns with NDIS pricing and processes, 2020 was a year of progress for a sector in which many disability providers have struggled to just stay afloat.

This year, 67 per cent of providers surveyed reported making a profit in the last financial year (compared to 54 per cent in 2019) and 66 per cent were 'actively growing' their business. Fewer providers are looking to merge, and just 6 per cent are considering getting out of the sector (down from 11 per cent this time last year).

"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."

"Our members have had to evacuate areas, adapt to physical distancing, track down protective equipment and master infection control protocols. A lot of services that were once performed face-to-face are now being done online.

"The adaptability they've shown doesn't surprise me in the least. Our members have been adapting to new and changing NDIS process for over seven years now - and we've never been the kind of sector to shy away from difficulty.

"The bottom line is that disability services are essential services. Not working is just not an option for most of our members, and they've by and large embraced the chance to do things a bit differently."

Mr Moody also acknowledged the Federal Government for its COVID measures during the year, particularly JobKeeper. Forty two per cent of service providers believed that they had been well supported during emergency events; 38 per cent disagreed.

But he emphasised that, "if Australians with disability are to have their needs met, service providers need an NDIS that allows them to thrive, rather than survive."

No less than 69 per cent of providers had to turn away requests for a service in 2020 because they did not have capacity to provide it. Organisations continue to be focused on maintaining existing programs, rather than adding new ones. And - despite the modest increase in sector-wide profits - the fact remains that 50 per cent of very small providers reported either just breaking even or making a loss.

"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."

"In these uncertain economic times, disability services could be a major source of employment growth, but providers can't get bigger when they can't be confident in turning a profit. They're not going to take on and train new staff members when they're barely able to train the current ones. And they're not going to have time to think and plan ahead when administrative processes change month-by-month and they spend their days tangled in complex red tape.

"This sector can and should be responsible for some of the most significant job growth in Australian history. But for that to happen, people are going to need to want to work in it."

"This actually represents an improvement, believe it or not, but only 17 per cent of the providers we surveyed say they're satisfied with NDIS systems and process, and nearly two in three thought there were too many unnecessary rules and regulations.

"The NDIS is still beset by some complex design problems which prevent Australians with disability from having their needs met. And we believe that they could be solved if governments were more willing to engage with the sector, and sit down and discuss issues in detail."

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