VIEW: Merely Being compliant is not a point of difference to be proud of in the disability sector

As the disability sector is facing a range of headline-making issues, including a new NDIS Minister and pushback from the industry to proposed changes to the NDIS, this interview outlines experiences and insights from River Night, CEO and founder of Australian Communities, about how he is using his passions, lived experience of disability, and skills to drive change in the disability sector.

  • What currently drives you in your work?

After 24 years working in the disability sector, I’ve seen so many changes and so much worry, innovation, skepticism, new ideas, unclear agency directions but also, great feedback and solutions from people purchasing services and service providers. I go to work each day because I see a chance and opportunity to provide leadership and a platform for people to be heard and to be the voice of the sector for people who don’t have one.

I want to support and create ways to shape how Australia can get things right for its disability community. I am driven because I can see the opportunity to bring together thousands of service providers, people living with disability and diversity from all over the country. Creating a way for us all to establish events and have think tanks that can power out multiple solutions to what people see as problems and challenges in our sector.

I also get to do this from the position of a service provider, a person with lived experience of disability myself, a carer of family members with disability and diversity, an advocate and a professional. Therefore, if we can get things right, it affects me directly as well.

If I can facilitate events where, as a sector, we pick 10 key worries and problems direct from the people it affects from each event and produce multiple solutions to take straight back to the Agencies involved then that is a huge benefit to everyone involved and is the main thing that gets me up and out of bed every day.

  • What standards in the disability sector are you working on changing? Why?

I have developed a focus on raising the bar and delivering a more principles-based approach to quality standards. I have found you can have all the standards in the world but unless you are actually committed to them and are doing things for the right reasons, then it just doesn’t hit the mark. Without this we continue to see abuse, neglect and breaches of human rights. The key principles I try to focus on and have turned into a practice framework are Transparency, Commitment, Authenticity, Customer Centered Work, Contemporary Practice and Safety. Regardless of how you go about things I strongly believe if you, your staff and the stakeholders involved bring things back to good common principles, people will make the right decisions based on good foundations.

While privatisation has its pros and cons, I believe we need to treat the people that are accessing services as respected and valued customers with the priority to be to deliver a good service. To do this we need to invest more in professional development and raise standards.

A major standard I would like to focus on is service providers excelling and delivering a good product beyond basics. I have seen for too many years a sector where the point of difference between service providers is that they are compliant with legislation and standards as opposed to their competitor that is not. Being compliant with basic legislation or regulated standards is not a point of difference to be proud of. Compliance is a basic, expected first step. That is why I want to focus on raising the bar to deliver a disability community services sector we can all be proud of by really professionalising the sector and the way we work.

  • What are the impacts on our society as a whole when standards in the disability sector are improved?

I am a strong believer that people provide a lot of insight into themselves based on how a community or individual respond to diversity and the treatment of people that need support.

If a person is insecure, uncomfortable, judgmental, and lacking in respect for themselves and others, then their treatment of other people will be very much impacted. The treatment and value of people and the way we deliver support to them through the disability sector tells us a lot about ourselves. I have had no surprises from the horrific stories heard through the Royal Commission as I know these things happen and they continue to happen. Just like many people often have not had contact or understanding of the realities of Aged Care until a loved one goes through it, we often avoid recognising and talking about diversity openly and comfortably. It is harder for abuse and neglect to occur and continue when practices are transparent and there is real accountability along with frequent checks. As a culture it is essential for us to value and put focus on how we respond to disability.

  • What are your views on how the NDIS is currently designed?

There appears to be a disconnect from how it is designed and how it appears to be designed. At a broad level, individualised allocation of funding has been great for many people being able to have some choice and control over who they purchase services from.

After many years, I see many operational matters that could easily be fixed to help providers streamline common things like payment claims and portal features. Simple things that if in a private company, would simply be fixed by way of an IT team. Sadly, being a Government Agency, change is slow.

The plan review process is inconsistent with new delegates causing many issues. If a participant gets a good delegate, the process is simple. If they get a different one, even after many, many reports and supporting evidence, delegates seem to make decisions that just don’t fit and we have to go through the time and wasted resources of immediate reviews. A good system and approach would make some of these processes very simple. For example, a person with a significant lifelong physical disability diagnosed since birth, should not be asked to provide evidence that they still have a disability every review period and argue that they still need staff support. A simple review based on the recommendations of their own professionals that know them well is appropriate.

The introduction of independent assessors also adds to an already worrying design creating more inconsistency. It takes time, close professional relationships and case knowledge to assess and make recommendations for an individual. When a person has an Occupational Therapist, Psychiatrist, Speech Therapist and Guardians appointed, amounting to years of case history, it makes no sense introducing a third party without case history or any previous rapport or relationship to over-ride or replace significant professional input and recommendations. On the other hand, for a person that has no professionals or assessments already, an NDIS assessor would potentially be very helpful. This is the logical and individualised approach that the NDIS needs to demonstrate more of.

  • If you were head of NDIS for a day, what’s one thing you would change? Why?

The many systemic issues and problems of the NDIS and related Agencies cannot be fixed in a day but a good culture and some concrete action to demonstrate good faith could be done tomorrow. I would start by stating clearly that the NDIS recognises the challenges and systemic issues that exist, list them and show vulnerability in leadership through open and transparent language. There are huge benefits and opportunities through a National Scheme but also massive difficulties. It is not rocket science and people know that it is hard to ever get things perfect, so establish some regular flows of communication with the sector that are authentic, including talking about mistakes to ensure that people living with Disability are leading this Agency, sitting in the portfolio and making decisions.

I would mandate on my day of leading the agency, that the outcomes and recommendations would then only be considered once they have been reviewed and endorsed by each state and made up of approval bodies consisting only of people living with disability in Australia. This process would also need to be widely advertised and communicated to the community, so it is seen to be done as well as being done. I would mandate that only when each state can come to an agreement by these groups should policy, process and legislation be drafted. This may overstep the boundaries of the head of Agency but it could be a good start and I am not used to limiting my work to fit in a neat box.

About the expert

River Night is the CEO and founder of Australian Communities. With more than 22 years in Disability, Mental Health, Education, Child Safety, Youth Justice, Quality Systems and Forensic Settings in Government and Non-Government Sectors, as well as lived experience of disability, River Night is an expert in raising the bar and helping 24/7 NDIS Funded Participants.

River has spent two decades supporting participants living with disability, mental illness and complex behaviour, and working with participants who require coordination of a variety of stakeholders including Statutory Agencies.

By applying his own experience in disability, mental health, education, youth detention and child safety, River helps others to set and maintain better standards for the disability sector. He also brings expertise in licensing, forensic disability support, government and non-government roles to his position as a consultant and disability services industry leader.

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Image description: Headshot of River from the waist up. River wears a black, collared shirt.