Monday, August 9, 2010

2010 Election Promises Part 3

On 29 July the Australian Labor Party announced $60m capital funding to create up to 150 additional accommodation or respite places for people living with disability, signalling this was a modest increase on current arrangements.  Click here for the announcement.

If the policy is implemented by the next government, community organisations can apply directly to the Commonwealth government for capital grant funding, so long as they can demonstrate they have attracted funding from elsewhere to meet the costs of the ongoing support needs of the people living in the housing.  The ALP’s emphasis is on “innovative, community-led projects”.

Given that there is nothing innovative about groups of people living with disability being coerced to live together in group homes, which tends to happen  because of general restrictions on the amount of funds available for personal support, and/or because of a lack of imagination, the optimist in me is hoping that the ALP has something different in mind when talking about ‘innovative’, and 'community-led'.

Meanwhile, the next day, 30 July, the Liberal Party finally broke its silence on disability issues (unless I’ve missed something in the media – do tell me)  and announced what it would do as government to assist students living with disability.  Click here for the announcement.

In pointing out that many students living with disability have limited choices about which school to attend, and that any funding support is directed at schools not the student, the Liberal Party’s proposals include an initiative called an Education Card, worth up to $20,000 and fully portable.  The Card would mean that the student and her/his family would presumably be able to exercise greater choice about which school to go to, because the family and student have genuine purchasing power by virtue of the value of the Education Card.   

I imagine this might make it more likely that the student could choose their local school, or the school that most of their local friends are attending, or the school that excels in a particular area of study/activity that the student is interested in. In other words, the student would get the same choices as her/his non-disabled peers.  In which case, it seems the Education Card, depending on how the scheme is designed and implemented, could carry some of the features of Individualised Funding (refer to previous postings on this blogsite).  If so, this would be a very encouraging development for people living with disability and their families interested in having more say about what they can access.  It is a further example of how the ideas within Individualised Funding can help create a climate where truly personalised solutions might emerge.

I remind myself that, as always, a good idea is at its most vulnerable when it’s being implemented, so we will have to wait and see if and how such an initiative is designed and implemented.  However, at first glance it offers promise for young people like the student I remember at a local primary school who enjoyed a typical primary school education experience in a welcoming school alongside other local kids.  But when it came to the move from primary to secondary education, he somehow got placed at a 'special' school just for students living with disability, two bus rides away. I doubt such an arrangement will be helpful to him in maintaining connection with his friends from primary school, or in developing new acquaintanceships in his local community.

I don’t doubt that he may enter valued friendships at the ‘special’ school.  But why should we assume that a person living with disability can only enjoy friendship and fellowship with other people living with disability.  My concern is that the shift to a special secondary school is making it more likely that this student is being set up for an adulthood of separateness, destined to learn, live and work alongside only other people living with disability.

With portable support funding in place, it’s just possible that this student could have chosen his local neighbourhood high school or another welcoming mainstream school.  In such circumstances he might perhaps have had a better chance of maintaining and further developing his fellowship with his local friends from primary school, make new acquaintanceships with students from a variety of backgrounds, and perhaps have had a better chance of emerging into a richer seam of opportunities as an adult, from a childhood characterised by inclusion, not by the badge of ‘special’.

Friday, August 6, 2010

2010 Election Promises Part 2

Early Intervention is an important principle, even though I’m not a big fan of the word ‘intervention’ and would prefer something like ‘Early Investment’.  If delivered well it in can assist children living with disability and their families to establish and build critical capacity, get on the ‘front foot’ in life, and move towards a hopeful future.  

To which, on 29 July the Australian Labor Party announced up to $12,000 of early intervention services would be available to each child aged 6 or under with certain types of disability.  The annoucement is here.  This is apparently in addition to new Medicare rebates that are also designed to assist with the costs of early intervention services, creating a total package of $122m over 4 years.

It strikes me that here is a fine opportunity to offer these funds as an Individualised budget, where each eligible family gets their indicative allocation of funds and can then shop around for the services and supports they feel will be most helpful to their circumstances.   Based on the current announcement, it’s not clear to me how the funding actually will be administered, though the ALP mentioned the establishment of a preferred provider panel.  Such panels can be something of a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, they provide a shortcut to service agencies that have been accredited in some way.  On the other hand they limit the horizon, because if a type of service that someone wants is not on the menu of the agencies on the provider panel, then it can’t be bought.  This means that for at least some families we are curtailing the possibility of crafting a truly personalised solution.

Interestingly, the Medicare rebates afford some choice and control to a family who presumably can shop around for the Medicare-registered provider agency that will work best for them.   I assume that there is an accreditation process involved in becoming a Medicare-approved agency and again this might exclude some agencies and the associated choices available to families.

Also on 29 July Labor announced $1 million for projects that support employers to hire and train people living with disability.  You can read the announcement here.  On the face if it this is a step in the right direction.  People living with disability are underrepresented in Australia’s workplaces, and I’m supportive of any initiative that assists more diversity in the workplace where people living with disability are viewed as valued colleagues alongside non-disabled peers.  But in an economy of around 14.5 million Australians of working age (my estimate based on 2007 figures from Australian Bureau of Statistics), we need to think about how far that $1m will actually go.  

Try this back-of-the-envelope analysis.  Let’s assume that 20% of adults of working age live with disability – around 2.9 million. But many of these people will have types of disability that don’t present major barriers to employment.  And some people living with disability are already in employment.  So let’s assume that the adults living with significant disability are those who have registered with their state/territory disability services.  In South Australia I’m guessing this is around 12,000 people.  But some of these people will be employed with mainstream employers.  So I’m going to assume that 2000 of these are outside mainstream employment – I’m not sure if I’m being wildly optimistic here but in any case it will make the back-of-the-envelope maths easier.  So I’m assuming 10,000 people in SA are living with significant disability and currently not in mainstream employment.  Let’s scale this up nationally (SA being around 7% of the national population), which gives us around 147,000 people.  So this is the ‘eligible’ population for assistance into mainstream employment.  And there is $1m available.  So that’s $6.80 each.  

The point here is not to diminish the intention behind the announcement, or to be ungrateful for the $1m, or to understate the potential for the announcement to make at least some mainstream employers think about workplace diversity.  My point is that more funding may be needed to truly make a dent in the issue, and such funding should be part of a broader push to ensure all Australian employers include (and celebrate) people living with disability in their workforce.   

By the way, prior to my moving to Australia I had encountered an organisation based in Chatswood NSW called Employers Making a Difference, who recently changed their name to Australian Network on Disability.  If you are interested in exploring how people living with disability can be supported into open employment opportunities through an "it's good for your business" mindset, they have useful information on their website here

Third installment of 2010 Election Promises will be early next week.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

2010 Election Promises Part 1

Public policy conversations about disability are many and varied at the moment, and perhaps like me, you are finding it a challenge to keep up.  The Productivity Commission is continuing its work regarding the future arrangements for disability support, and hopefully you have had a chance to make your views known.  Meanwhile the Labor government recently released its draft National Disability Strategy so there is a fair bit to digest there.  The government is working on its draft report to the United Nations regarding Australia’s progress against the Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons (another opportunity to make your views known), and in South Australia the Social Inclusion Board has released a discussion paper regarding the future of local disability support (and another opportunity to make your views known).

I will blog some thoughts on the above as soon as I can, but right now, in case you haven’t noticed, the country is in election mode, so I want to explore some of the announcements by the major parties, because at least some of them were easy to miss in the media.  I found a bunch for the Australian Labor Party but so far only 1 from the Liberal Party of Australia.  Let me know if you know of any others that I don't cover in this and the next blog.

On 17 July Labor announced an initiative involving the major cinema chains delivering more accessible cinema experiences to people living with disability.  Click here for the announcement, which is at the FaHCSIA website so i guess it counts as “already going to happen” as opposed to “this is what we’ll do if we get in”. 
It includes up to $470,000 over four years to the four major cinema chains to build technical capacity,  fast tracking audio description and captioning, together with support for the Accessible Cinemas Advisory Group, which includes a number of disability voices.

This initiative is good news, especially for people like my Mum who is blind, and for whom the prospect of an audio description services that mean she can go out to the movies with the rest of us.

On the 24 July, Labor announced some measures to support people living with disability into community life.  Click here for the announcement.  These measures included: a $5m pool to match local money (up to $100,000 per grant) so that local councils can improve public amenities such as restrooms, town halls etc, and $1m for improving access to public library materials by people with particular types of disability.   

These seem useful and sensible in terms of building accessibility of our communities.  The question of course is whether the funding is enough.  I like the expectation that local councils need to match the funding as this helps lock in local commitment.  I hope that the grant information going to local councils also includes clear signals of local councils’ obligations under the UN Convention, among other things.  Otherwise, the need to find local matched funds might put some local councils off if they are not sufficiently aware of the imperative for good access.

Now might be a good time to write to your local council to nominate the access improvement you would most like to see in your local community.

In the same breath, Labor announced a $3m leadership program for people living with disability, including access to mentors.  Again, on the face of it I like this idea.  The main considerations for me are (a) whether this program will genuinely deliver increased leadership capacity because that’s why the participants are there, and (b) whether it will be matched by government effort  to ensure it is playing its part in creating formal leadership opportunities for people. There are plenty of opportunities coming up within government.  Two obvious examples are the overseeing of the National Disability Strategy implementation, and the governing of any National Disability Insurance Scheme.  Both of these absolutely positively definitely must have people living with disability in leadership roles.

Labor also announced $500k for an 'attitudes' disability website.  In principle I like this because information is important.  In terms of the cost, I would be very interested to learn more about how they see the $500,000 being spent, so that it has the best chance of getting the attention of its target audience.  Essentially, this initiative is about raising the capacity of our communities to be welcoming and inclusive of people living with disability.  A well-orchestrated public awareness website can make a contribution to this, but is unlikely by itself to result in a critical mass of change. It needs to happen alongside other elements that help grow community capacity.  Much of this happens 'one person at a time' because if we are all committed to the notion of personalised supports then that also implies a highly personalised journey into community life. In which case, I hope that the incoming government, with whatever political persuasion they claim, make good investment into personalised supports including connecting into community life.

By the way, on 28 July, while opening a new accommodation service in Canberra for young people living with disability, Parliamentary Secretary Bill Shorten said “the benefits of age-appropriate and community-based accommodation and support are beyond question”.  I'm pleased to hear that, because for people to get a life in community they need to be living in it.  Bill Shorten’s comments offer a modicum of reassurance to those of us who are concerned about what happens to people living in institutional accommodation services.  Click here for the announcement.

Next instalment of this blog topic 2010 Election Promises will arrive shortly.