Opinion article

The challenges and opportunities of the NDIS

The Benevolent Society’s Executive Director, Disability, Jo-Anne Hewitt, notes that the NDIS provides a massive opportunity to elevate the position of people with disability in our society. But governments and NGOs need to work together to resolve the problems emerging in the scheme. And, she writes, it is not in anybody's interests for this scheme to fail.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has been described by CEDA as the ‘biggest change in social services Australia has seen in more than 30 years’.  

In further absolute agreement with CEDA, there has certainly been a great deal of change in the disability services sector in Australia over the last year in particular with the introduction of the NDIS, and the transition of disability services from the government to the non-government sector in New South Wales.

The NDIS is a vital reform which represents a great opportunity for people with disability to take control of their lives and get the support that they need to participate meaningfully in the community.

Indeed, once the full vision of the NDIS is realised, it has the capacity to change fundamentally the place people with disability hold in our society.

Already, the NDIS is helping 183,965 people, including over 54,800 people who had not previously received state or Commonwealth government support.  

The NDIS is a huge undertaking. It is to be expected that with a scheme as transformative as the NDIS, there will be challenges in rolling it out across a country as large as Australia.

No doubt there has been teething problems; and for some participants and potential participants their expectations are not being adequately met. Disability sector workers are also frustrated by some aspects of the scheme.

However, it is not in anybody’s interests that the scheme fails.

What we need is for all stakeholders – state and Commonwealth governments, service providers, people with disability and their families and carers – to continue to talk to each other to come up with solutions to the problems which have emerged from the roll-out of the scheme. 

The planning process

The first place to start this conversation is the planning process which is a constant source of frustration for NDIS participants and disability workers alike.  

There are many issues with the planning process, including: long time frames for plans to get approved, or for plan reviews to be finalised; inadequate allocation of funds for services and supports; and inconsistency of plans between participants with similar needs. 

One of the common criticisms is that many NDIS planners do not appear to have a background in, or an understanding of, the reality for people with disability. 

Suggestions to improve the planning process include removing the staffing cap set for the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), but increasing the number of planners alone will not address the issue. 

I would like to see NDIA recruitment for planners and other key roles, aiming to attract people with a solid understanding, or lived experience, of disability to ensure that all people with all disability are represented and understood.

Impact of the introduction of the market system  

A key feature of the scheme is the allocation of funding to individuals, with organisations competing to provide services to participants of the scheme. Adjusting to the market environment has been a challenge for many non-government organisations (NGOs) who have had to adapt their business models and way of working. 

One of the major challenges has been operating in a tightly regulated market where prices for services and supports are set by the NDIA. A common complaint from service providers is that the prices set by the NDIA do not cover the costs associated with delivering services under the scheme. 

The success of the NDIS relies on a vibrant market which provides services to participants as needed. Given the NDIS price limits, some providers are choosing not to provide certain services or are withdrawing from providing services under the NDIS altogether which has the potential to undermine the success of the scheme. 

Growth of the disability sector workforce

It is well documented that there will be workforce pressures across the sector to support the full roll-out of the NDIS. 

The Productivity Commission predicts that the NDIS workforce will need to more than double by 2020 – which means that one in five of all new jobs created in Australia will need to be in the disability sector. 

If managed well, the NDIS provides a massive opportunity for job-creation and the sector should be targeting new graduates and attracting people from other sectors where employment is unstable to retrain in the disability sector.

However, meeting the challenge of the growing workforce also means retaining existing, experienced workers. At the moment many experienced disability practitioners are choosing to leave the disability sector altogether in response to the new NDIS environment. 

Government and NGOs need to work together to devise a workforce development strategy which aims to retain staff in the sector and establish a workforce development fund to attract graduates and other workers to the sector. 


It is disappointing that most of the media reporting around the NDIS has been negative. It is certainly a challenging period for the disability sector, but where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. 

The opportunities to meet these challenges with innovative solutions cannot be underestimated. I am excited to see how the sector responds by exploring new models to deliver services to people living in remote communities, strategies to attract staff to the sector and opportunities to harness artificial intelligence to deliver virtual services.

About the authors

Jo-Anne Hewitt

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Jo-Anne Hewitt is The Benevolent Society Executive Director, Disability. Jo-Anne has over 35 years’ experience in the not-for-profit sector and has held senior executive roles in a number of large NGOs including at Uniting, where she previously held the role of Director Disability, and more recently, as General Manager Client Services at Cerebral Palsy Alliance. 

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