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A National Disability Insurance Scheme - a barrier to service?

By Erik Leipoldt - posted Monday, 12 October 2009

A proposal for a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is on the table. But is it worth having in this form?

Some 20 per cent of Australians have some kind of disability. You may not have one today, then Bang, you too join the club. Accidents, old age, illness, congenital impairment. It’s part of life and they happen to you and me. Not just to someone else.

But you cannot really insure against disability, just against some of the financial costs of it. The reason you cannot is that the experience of disability is largely determined by social attitudes towards people who have impairments of some sort. Physical, mental, sensory or whatever.


Those social attitudes ensure social exclusion, isolation, abuse, unemployment and poverty for many people who have disabilities and their families. And these effects bother disabled people far more than the fact that they cannot walk, see or hear.

No insurance against disabling attitudes

Significant disabling attitudes are those that see the person as a tragedy, and a medical problem. Or as a worthless deviant with no economic role to play. Or treat them as a commodity in multi-billion dollar disability services and “care” industries. As someone with long-time personal experience of quadriplegia and involvement in the disability area, I know that in a society like ours no insurance premium can buy you the status of a valued person, to be included in our society’s work, learning and playing activities, alongside everyone else.

There is of course a case for a no-fault disability insurance. I think of it as erasing the anomaly between those who might become disabled in a car accident, and receive a big compensation pay-out, or receive nothing if you did the same thing by being dumped on your head by an ocean wave, or acquired a disability at any time, whatever the cause. Or the anomaly where a legally blind person receives a means test-free disability support pension, but no one else does - while many impairments involve higher disability-related costs of living. At least a straight no-fault disability insurance scheme might compensate somewhat for the significant disability-related extra costs of living, thereby relieving some disability-related poverty.

There is now a proposal for a no-fault National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) on the table. It wants a public, tax payer levy like Medicare or superannuation to pay for disability services and equipment for people with disabilities, whether born with an impairment or acquired as a result of an accident. It says the results will be “transformational” for people with disabilities and their families but the scheme will not provide income support. And it says nothing about transforming disability services towards meeting fundamental needs. Just the same disability services we’re getting now, but more of them, along the same lines of existing managerial service ideology. This, even as the NDIS proposal says the disability services system is not good enough, which is a notion I support.

Grounds for opposing NDIS

I oppose NDIS in its current form on several grounds. The main one is that you cannot make mango juice out of a lemon. We don’t need more of the same. We need something fundamentally different. Something based on the meaning of Care, not industry-based competition. Some approach that genuinely meets individual needs.

Second, in doing so we need to honestly and transparently separate the budgetary needs of the disability industry and government Treasuries from the human needs of the people that this is all for: people with disabilities - and not let the first two ride over the third.


Last, we need to pause and acknowledge that a similar levy-based scheme, called Medicare, has not so far led to an equitable, high quality, needs-based health system. So why would NDIS?

Disabling barriers within disability services

The NDIS proposal states that the disability service system was “not properly designed and structured, but has developed in an ad hoc and deeply inequitable way over several decades”. What it does not explore is where the causes for the unresponsive system lie. They are found as much in the disability industry’s values, fears and ignorance as those that shut people with disabilities out from our society. And often they are cemented in by the same managerialism and application of market forces to human wellbeing that Kevin Rudd says he is concerned about. This goes beyond tweaking or buying better quality service.

So what does NDIS propose? That its implementation will create quality service through industry-wide competition in a “a new competitive marketplace for service provision” driving” efficiency and effectiveness”.

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About the Author

Dr Erik Leipoldt is a Dutch-born Australian. He acquired his disability of quadriplegia in 1978, which first prompted his long-term involvement in disability advocacy and advocacy development. He is a past chair of the WA Disability Services Advisory Committee, and member of various former government disability policy advisory committees, including the Disability Advisory Council of Australia. He is a past convenor of the Australian Advocacy Network and past Executive Officer of People With Disabilities WA. He was a Member of the former Guardianship and Administration Board WA and is currently a Senior Sessional Member of the State Administrative Tribunal of Western Australia. Erik is known as an author of many articles, commenting from a disability perspective. His PhD thesis (2003) was entitled "Good life in the balance: a cross-national study of Dutch and Australian disability perspectives on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide." His main current interest is how disability experience may provide a practical guiding story to a sustainable world. He is an Adjunct Lecturer with the Centre for Research into Disability and Society, Curtin University of Technology, WA.

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