THE National Disability Insurance Scheme marked its first birthday this month, with another anniversary due on October 17, the day the Newcastle Herald revealed plans to close the Stockton Centre and privatise all state-run disability services.
It’s a development that’s still not that widely known outside of the Hunter, despite the impact on an estimated 14,000 disability workers in the NSW system, and tens of thousands more in other states making similar changes.
In Newcastle tomorrow, disability workers will take part in a union-backed rally outside their department’s offices at 670 Hunter Street, which organisers hope will be the start of a rolling campaign of action designed to overturn the decision, or at least ameliorate some of its impacts.
It’s a complicated subject.
Having broken the Stockton story thanks to a tip-off from a contact outside of the system, I have written dozens of articles on the subject since October last year, and the wonders of digital propagation mean that Herald articles on Stockton and the NDIS have been republished in various blogs and disability discussion pages, and not always favourably.
One line of criticism – which I accept – is that I have done little direct reporting on the opinions of those at the heart of the debate, the people living with disability.
This challenge was levelled at an early piece I wrote about Wendy Cuneo and her son David, who has spent most of his life at Stockton.
Wendy believes Stockton is the best home for her son and is fighting tooth and nail to keep the place open, albeit with some changes.
Although I wrote that David wanted to live away from the centre, I was taken to have patronised him, or downplayed his opinion, by accepting his mother’s belief that it would not work.
I am generalising here but the disability advocates who campaign to have Stockton closed tend to be people with physical disabilities but without the intellectual impairment that is almost universal among Stockton residents. They should certainly be listened to, but there are others who say their views put ideology before practicality.
I am not saying the status quo – which funded the service agencies, rather than the individuals – is perfect.
Giving an annual funding stream directly to the person with the disability seems like obvious common sense, but there are other ways of looking at it, especially when government services are being privatised at the same time.
One critic summed up things for me when he compared the NDIS to shutting the government school system and then handing out vouchers and telling parents it was up to them to organise their schooling.
That would cause a riot, but this is a reasonable analogy of what is happening with the NDIS.
A draft report by the industry’s peak body, National Disability Services, shows that even the private sector employers who stand to benefit enormously from the NDIS are acknowledging some major concerns.
Not least of these is an apparently inevitable downgrading of staff qualifications, with the employer body worried that ‘‘highly skilled and senior staff are being, and will continue to be, lost’’ because of the ‘‘transition to the non-government sector’’.
Under the guise of “flexibility”, employers are being forced by the funding model to employ people for as little as two hours a week, meaning that university students, people retrenched from other industries, backpackers and volunteers are viewed as more likely job fodder than the skilled, specialised and “more expensive” staff who have done the job so far.
Employees speaking up about these concerns have been criticised for putting themselves before the people they care for, but when an employer body raises the same sorts of concerns, I’d say both groups need listening to.
Tomorrow’s protest is likely to be the first in a wave of actions. The Wendy Cuneos of the world believe they will overturn the Stockton closure. Whether that’s wishful thinking, or whether they have an ace up their sleeves, only time will tell.