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Calls to Overhaul NDIS to Better Accommodate Indigenous Australians


Monday, 5th February 2018 at 12:11 pm
Luke Michael, Journalist
A First Peoples advocacy group has called for an overhaul of the National Disability Insurance Scheme to better accommodate Indigenous people, after a study found ill-health and disability were driving psychological distress in older Indigenous Australians.


Monday, 5th February 2018
at 12:11 pm
Luke Michael, Journalist


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Calls to Overhaul NDIS to Better Accommodate Indigenous Australians
Monday, 5th February 2018 at 12:11 pm

A First Peoples advocacy group has called for an overhaul of the National Disability Insurance Scheme to better accommodate Indigenous people, after a study found ill-health and disability were driving psychological distress in older Indigenous Australians.

First Peoples Disability Network Australia (FPDN) – a national organisation that advocates for the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability – said the NDIS needed to recognise the different needs of Aboriginal people with disability.

Damian Griffis, the CEO of FPDN, told Pro Bono News that an overhaul of the scheme was necessary to capitalise on the “critical opportunity for many Aboriginal people” to get access to services.

“Meeting the needs of Aboriginal people with disability is one of the most critical and urgent social justice issues in Australia today,” Griffis said.

“It has to be a priority of the NDIS to recognise that the needs of a lot of Aboriginal people with disability, particularly those living in remote Australia, are going to be different. This is in the sense that there really doesn’t exist a service system out there.

Griffis said NDIS services should be delivered by Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, to ensure Aboriginal Australians felt comfortable seeking help.

“We need to invest in communities and allow the communities themselves to support their own members with disability,” he said.

“And by supporting Aboriginal community-controlled organisations they can potentially create employment in Aboriginal communities, which can only be a positive.”

It comes as a new study led by Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute revealed that poor physical health was a major factor in Indigenous Australians experiencing significantly higher levels of psychological distress compared to non-Indigenous people.

The study used questionnaire data from 1,631 Aboriginal participants and 233,405 non-Aboriginal participants, finding that one in two Aboriginal people suffering significant ill health, physical disability and functional limitations were also likely to be highly psychologically distressed.

Baker Institute researcher Dr Bridgette McNamara said the study uncovered the powerful impact of poor physical health on a person’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

“This study highlights that addressing physical ill-health in Aboriginal populations, which is significantly higher than non-Aboriginal populations, could also help to address the high levels of mental distress,” McNamara said.

The Baker Institute’s Head of Aboriginal Health, Professor Sandra Eades, added that mental health admissions, suicide and self-harm amongst the Indigenous population were up to seven times higher than that of the non-Indigenous population in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US.

“We know Aboriginal people suffer greater physical ill health than non-Indigenous people, including much higher rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes and kidney disease, and we need to ensure that treatment and support better meets both their physical and emotional needs,” Eades said.

“Improved screening for psychological distress and more effective integration of social and emotional wellbeing care in primary care and chronic disease management are needed.”

Griffis said he was not at all surprised by the findings.

“We’ve seen for decades now that many of our people with disability also experience very significant mental health related needs, so the report is no surprise to us at all sadly,” he said.

The NDIS hit the milestone of engaging 100,000 participants in August last year, but Indigenous people comprised only around 5 per cent of this figure, despite being 70 per cent more likely to experience disability than non-Indigenous Australians.

Last September, AbSec – the New South Wales peak body for Aboriginal children and families – called for long-term funding for Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, to equip them to provide disability services to their local communities.  

Brian Edwards, the project support officer at AbSec, said it was “not acceptable that those who need the NDIS the most are benefiting from it the least”.

“Aboriginal people experience disability differently to other Australians. There’s no word meaning ‘disability’ in our languages – it’s not a widely recognised concept in our culture. So there’s a bit of a communication barrier from the start,” Edwards said.  

“When Aboriginal people have a problem, they go to their families and communities for support. That’s our way. So to make the NDIS accessible to Aboriginal people, you need to equip our own communities to provide the services in a culturally appropriate way.

Griffis also highlighted the language barriers facing the Aboriginal community, and said building trust in the scheme was vital to improving the rate of Indigenous participants.  

“Disability is still significantly underreported in Aboriginal Australia, and a lot of Aboriginal people with disability don’t tend to self-identify as people with disability, because in traditional language there wasn’t a comparable word,” he said.

“The language in the disability sector is often not used in Aboriginal Australia, so it requires a very different approach. A lot of the language used in the NDIS is not accessible for Aboriginal people with disability in their community. So that’s a major barrier.

“But fundamentally, it’s about Aboriginal people needing to trust a system that traditionally hasn’t met their needs in a meaningful way. This is another government scheme that for a lot of Aboriginal people seems out of reach and we need to urgently address that.”


Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.


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