Disability services not always suited to digital, report reveals
8 July 2022 at 4:56 pm
Better preparation is needed to ensure continuity of services for NDIS participants in times of crisis.
A new report has revealed that many of the services required by NDIS participants do not translate well online.
The Provider Choice research report, COVID-19 and the NDIS, found that for many participants, digital delivery of services was inadequate during the pandemic, and face-to-face was preferred, in a finding that has implications for how people with disability recover now.
Co-founder of Provider Choice Jonathan Salgo told Pro Bono News that the organisation wanted to look back at the difficult initial stages of the COVID-19 period, when people with disability faced “much greater challenges” than others in the community. The survey was conducted in early 2022 and asked respondents to consider the first two years of COVID.
With Australia transitioning to a “personal responsibility” approach to COVID, the organisation spoke to 291 support coordinators across Australia about theirs and their clients’ experiences over the pandemic.
Access to services a challenge during COVID crisis
Nearly two thirds – 63.5 per cent – of those surveyed said access to providers was one of the biggest issues they faced during the peak of the pandemic.
The report found that delivering services online wasn’t always a viable option, due to “the nature of services being delivered, and the capability and capacity of participants”, and 75 per cent of support coordinators surveyed said face-to-face was a more effective way of reaching NDIS participants.
Support coordinators identified several issues with the digital delivery approach, including that some people with disability and their carers lack the capacity to use the technology required to access the service.
“The idea of services being able to translate online in the disability space has its limitations,” Salgo said.
“That’s not to say that there aren’t outcomes that can be achieved. But I think that it’s a very difficult thing moving a lot of these disability services into an online setting.”
Salgo said this finding could have implications for how service providers operate for people with disability during other crises and emergencies, to ensure continuity of service.
“In these emergency situations, I do think there just needs to be a greater understanding of what plan can be in place,” he said.
“How do we make sure that people are still really receiving services that they need? They’re going to need to receive those services as much as possible, in as least disruptive a way as possible.
“But unless the NDIA, the government and the community are aware of how to respond to these emergencies, I think we’re just going to see these issues reappear again and again.”
Support coordinators surveyed also said that they had faced serious difficulties in sourcing service providers during COVID, including support workers, occupational therapists and speech pathologists. They said they had to be “creative” to fill the gaps, with some even taking on counselling roles themselves to address participants’ mental health.
The report also revealed that 42 per cent of support coordinators had had to change their criteria for selecting service providers over the previous 12 months.
The coordinators said they now looked for things like ongoing availability of service, flexibility with providing support, good COVID-19 policies and practices, and the ability to offer face-to-face delivery when needed.
Loneliness, isolation, confusion
As well, the report highlighted that 42.1 per cent of support coordinators surveyed were concerned that their participants were confused about NDIS policies around COVID.
The coordinators put this down to things like keeping up with government restrictions, and evolving rules on what the NDIS funding could be used for over the pandemic.
And 50 per cent of support coordinators surveyed said participants were concerned at cancellations and postponements of plan reviews.
The report concluded that due to this, many NDIS plans for participants with high needs are not sufficient to meet new needs arising from the pandemic.
Salgo said the NDIS needed to be flexible and responsive to people’s needs during times of need.
“Realistically, the National Disability Insurance Agency came up against an incredibly unique crisis, which was COVID,” Salgo explained.
“And what came out of that was that the NDIS in many ways may need to do some rethinking so that it can work for participants and families when crises like this might happen, because even though the pandemic is something that none of us expected, it is certainly the case that from time to time there are events like this that can take place and the NDIS is meant to be there as a scheme to provide the right supports for Australians who need it.”
More than 70 per cent of support coordinators said their participants had reported experiencing loneliness and social isolation over the pandemic, with many documenting deterioration in participants’ mental health – especially in Victoria.
As a result of anxiety and fear about the pandemic, support coordinators said participants had withdrawn or disengaged from social activities.
Getting ready for the next crisis
Salgo wants to see a greater focus on the long-term impact of COVID on people with disability, including whether it has set people back.
“We are talking about the fact that during this period a whole lot of Australians suffered and for people with disability, the challenge for them is that much greater and certainly the report speaks to that,” Salgo said.
He said this would likely involve governments working with businesses and communities to make spaces accessible and open for people with disability.
And Salgo said it was crucial for the NDIA to work alongside people with disability to co-design the process to keep services working during emergencies.
“You’ve got to involve [people with disability] in that conversation,” he said, adding that if the issue was not addressed, “the NDIS will, on a continuing basis, fail people when it comes down to these challenging circumstances.”