The NDIS leaves workers behind

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The NDIS has been failing to extend its strong values to its own employees (Screenshots via YouTube)

The NDIS would better serve its participants if its workforce had decent pay and good working conditions, writes Nicholas Haines.

IN MANY WAYS, the NDIS is an immense advance in social policy. It replaces the fragmented and financially constrained state and territory disability support systems with a national scheme funded by the currency issuer. This makes the scheme financially sustainable because the currency issuer’s spending is constrained by real resource availability, not by finance.

People who qualify for support are entitled to that support immediately; they are not turned away once the Government has spent a pre-determined budget. Under the NDIS, the Federal Government makes an open-ended commitment to fund people on the basis of need. The years-long waiting lists of the old systems are gone.

But what of the 162,000 full-time equivalent workers in the disability sector? How have they fared? The pay and conditions of disability support workers were never especially good. Gendered under-valuation of social care work is a longstanding problem.

The evidence so far is that the NDIS has made disability support work more casualised and more precarious than ever. Discontinuous shifts are common, with workers forced to travel between clients in their own time. Shift workers are having to read and update client files in their own time. Staff turnover is high. Worker burnout is widespread. There has been an influx of untrained workers. Experienced workers are not being paid to mentor, supervise and train new recruits. Why have these things happened?

A clue is in the 2011 report by the Productivity Commission that defined the conceptual framework for the NDIS. The Productivity Commission was clearly not convinced that disability support is or should be a skilled occupation. The assumption was that since much of the support for people with disabilities comes from unpaid family members, a paid disability support workforce need not be anything special. The occupation serves its purpose as long as people with disabilities receive assistance that is comparable to what is provided by family members.

This assumption overlooks the skills and capacities that disability support workers bring to their work. Disability support workers use advanced relational skills to nurture a person’s links to informal and natural supports, government departments and non-government agencies.

They use rigorous strategic thinking to help the person create and enact their vision of a good life. They use high-level emotional intelligence to build rapport, respond empathically and defuse stressful situations. They have a deep understanding of the systems and structures that shape a person’s life. They often have specialised knowledge of how to assist people with trauma and complex medical conditions.

To point this out is not to diminish the role of family members but rather to highlight the ways in which disability support workers complement and enhance unpaid support. Paid workers bring a set of skills that permit families to focus on family relationships while the paid workers do the coordinating, the connecting, the analysis and the structural work that make support work a valuable occupation.

Paid workers bring a different type of relationship to the people they are assisting — a working relationship that empowers a person to develop and grow. Family members, especially parents, are often not in the best position to bring that kind of developmental focus to their relationship with an adult who has a disability.

How do support workers develop these skills? Skilful management and supervision are essential. It is not enough to be immersed in the work day in and day out. Workers need structured opportunities to step out of the minutiae and see the big picture. They need to reflect and debrief with a supervisor who respects them. They need training events that build technical skills and knowledge. They need managers who are technically competent and emotionally astute.

The NDIA claims that management and supervision are built into the NDIS prices. This is not true — the prices are far too low to cover the worker’s wage as well as the overhead costs of supporting the worker. The NDIS should guarantee that workers will be appropriately supervised, managed, mentored and trained. The Federal Government should fund organisations directly to do those functions. Failing to fund those things sends a clear signal that workers are viewed as atomised gig workers who don’t need support.

Disability support work should be a respected profession in which workers can hone their craft and enjoy a career. Career progression is an important element of any profession. Experienced workers should be able to apply their skills to training and supervision, managerial work, organisational development and public advocacy. All workers deserve to belong to a rich community of practice. Precariously employed workers in a workforce with high turnover cannot build that kind of community.

The problems with how the NDIS treats workers reflect a wider structural phenomenon in our society. For the past 40 years, our laws and institutions have been moulded in ways that financialise our relationships, reduce social relations to transactions, replace cooperation with competition and favour hierarchy over equality. Extreme inequality of wealth, income and power has been normalised. The systems and structures in which we live encourage us to see marginalised workers as deserving of their fate.

If only they were more agile, more innovative and more hard-working they might achieve better pay and conditions by themselves, with no changes to structures and systems. To the extent that we think about the disadvantaged, we do so in a patronising way, not on the basis of equality and not with the goal of changing power relationships.

The NDIS is exceptionally strong on the rhetoric of respect, choice, control, autonomy and empowerment for people with disabilities. But it does not extend those values to the workers. It should be obvious that people with disabilities would benefit if their support workers had decent pay, secure working conditions and fulfilling career paths. It was not obvious to the people who designed the NDIS.

Nicholas Haines works in the disability support sector in Brisbane, Australia. He has a Master’s Degree in Development Practice from the University of Queensland.

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