It has been well known since the early days of the NDIS, that access to the NDIS has varied greatly for people depending on factors such as where they live and their cultural background. ECSC has consistently advocated for a comprehensive, integrated strategy to ensure that CALD people with disability are not left behind in the transition to the NDIS. However, the NDIA has been slow to respond, finally releasing its Cultural and Linguistic Diversity Strategy in 2018, several years into the roll out of the Scheme, and ignoring many of the recommendations made by ECSC and other CALD disability advocacy organisations.
A small, but significant shift occurred in June 2020, when the NDIA released the Community Connector Framework. This Framework not only recognises that many people (including those from CALD backgrounds) face additional barriers to accessing the NDIS, but also describes a new program that arguably takes a community development approach to addressing these barriers. Through community engagement, individual support, and systemic capacity building, the CALD Community Connectors Program is making a real difference in facilitating access to the NDIS for CALD people with disability across Australia.
I spoke with Dermot Carberry, ECSC’s Community Connector Program Team Leader, and asked what makes the CALD Community Connector Program so successful. He highlighted five key aspects of the approach that drive its success:
- The team provides 1:1 support to individuals and families, tailored to their cultural and linguistic needs. Bilingual workers meet people in places where they feel comfortable, either their home, the ECSC office or another place in the community. Workers can go with participants to support them in their visits to the GP or other professionals, to collect the evidence they need for access to the NDIS. Partners in the Community are simply not able to provide this level of 1:1 support. But without it, many CALD people with disability would never engage with the NDIS at all. One participant said: ““I feel like I won the lotto… I knew I needed NDIS, but I didn’t know how to get started.”.
- The approach is built on trust and developing mutual understanding. Community Connectors have the time to listen and understand the real barriers to access or the root cause of an issue. This then enables them to work with individuals and families to access and utilise the NDIS, or to re-engage with Partners in the Community. For example, a family who were illiterate in their own language had disengaged from Partners in the Community due to not understanding information they had been sent, but did not feel confident to explain this. Face-to-face support in a culturally appropriate manner allowed the Community Connector to identify the issue, educate the Partners in the Community agency, and reconnect the family with the NDIS.
- Community education is central. An important part of the role is building people’s understanding of the philosophy behind the provision of disability supports in Australia. Workers have found that this often demystifies the service system for participants, and reduces the fear that the important role of the family will be taken away if they agree to receive services. One participant said, ““It is great to have you as Community Connector here to provide me with essential knowledge and understanding about the NDIS. I understand more about my rights, choice and control when participating in the NDIS.”
- Community outreach and engagement build trust and respect. Community Connectors work with whole communities, engaging community leaders in promoting the rights of people with disability and the value of accessing appropriate support. For example, community leaders attended a community information session with the Nepalese community, helping attendees to see that accessing disability support is a potential option in Australia.
- The program builds capacity across the sector. Community Connectors work extensively with Partners in the Community, advising and supporting them in how to engage sensitively and effectively with CALD communities. Similarly, the program provides advice to government at all levels, based on its learning from grassroots engagement, to help improve the disability service system for all. One local government stakeholder who attended a Community Connectors sector information session said, “I cannot express how valuable the information I received last night was… my head has been full of ideas ever since!! I will contact LAC and CC and see how we can work together to assist our clients. The staff here (including myself) have very little knowledge of the workings of NDIS so to be able to utilise a service that can assist clients to make the applications and support them through the process will be amazing!”
This model reflects ECSC’s community development approach of many decades, acknowledging the important links between individual, community and systemic work. It is so effective because it takes an holistic approach which responds to the complexity of people’s situations. This approach requires time to build relationships with the community and the sector, understand the issues and develop appropriate responses; but it pays off in people accessing appropriate supports, at the right time, that enable them to participate more fully in their communities and the economy.
Unfortunately, the CALD Community Connectors Program has been funded for only 11 months, with funding due to end in June 2021. If the program ends, the valuable knowledge, networks and trust built by the workers will be lost. While the program has been building the capacity of Partners in the Community to engage with CALD communities more effectively, Partners in the Community do not have the mandate to work in the same way in community outreach, engagement and 1:1 support as the Community Connectors.
ECSC has long been arguing that the NDIS needs an approach like the Community Connector Program, not just as a stop-gap measure, but as an integral part of the NDIS. The barriers affecting CALD people with disability require time, skill, and expertise to address. This, in turn, requires stable funding to agencies to recruit, train and retain workers with these skills. We urge the NDIA to ensure ongoing funding for the National Community Connectors Program, so that it can continue its vital work of ensuring equitable access to the NDIS.
Ingrid Boland, Social Work Consultant for ECSC