NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission report shows need to do better on shared housing

Most of us list having a place to call home as essential to our quality of life. A home is about more than bricks and mortar. It is a sanctuary. A place where we feel comfortable and safe.

As that iconic Aussie movie argued so powerfully, a person’s home is their castle. Dale Kerrigan’s home was modest — though it had a pretty good gate — but to him and his family it was their world.

We don’t necessarily have to own our home to have this feeling. We may rent and live alone or share a house or apartment with others. The thing that makes it “ours” is the sense of control over what happens there. Who we invite in and how they behave when they are there.

For Luke, an Australian with disability, home is a place to keep his bowling trophies and hang the large portrait of himself. Simple things that make it his.

Luke lives in Specialist Disability Accommodation, which is also called a group home, where a number of people with disability live together. It may be a single house or several houses, or a larger purpose-built facility where residents have their own bedroom and share common areas such as kitchens, bathrooms and gardens.

Residents who live in these settings often have complex needs and limited communication skills arising from profound intellectual, physical or sensory disabilities. While this may impede their ability to do daily tasks such as showering, dressing or eating without support, it does not mean they have any less of a right to a place to call home.

Unfortunately, the number of issues and complaints continue to rise in group homes and other types of supported accommodation.

The NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission responded by launching an inquiry to better understand the challenges faced by people living in these settings, with a focus on group homes.

The commission’s final report, released on Monday, does not make for light reading. Complaints range from neglect to serious injury to unlawful sexual contact. These are incredibly troubling acts at any time, doubly so when they are perpetrated against the most vulnerable people in our society.

It is clear the sector needs to do better, overall, on supported accommodation. But I found a number of areas to be of particular concern.

Firstly, too often people in this type of accommodation have less choice and control over their supports than other NDIS participants. Many also found it hard to make changes to their living arrangements if they wished.

Secondly, while the majority of the staff in group homes are gold standard, there are a small number with the wrong attitude and aptitude who are driving a portion of the complaints and issues.

The organisations which provide group homes and the services within them must improve the culture of the workforce. Feedback from participants is evidence of the difference that good quality support from committed workers makes to the lives of people in these settings. They deserve nothing less.

Thirdly, the interaction between health and supported accommodation systems is ineffective. So we must seek easier access and more engagement across health and disability sectors for residents with complex health needs.

In consultation with people who have a disability, the Government has identified three immediate actions to focus on.

The NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission will change the regulation and monitoring of supported accommodation, including the introduction of new standards.

It will develop targeted programs of communication, engagement and education to support people with disability in supported accommodation exercise their rights,

And we will increase oversight of Supported Independent Living providers, including unregistered providers, and ensure they are meeting the NDIS code of conduct.

Our consultation with people with disability will continue to ensure our efforts result in their ability to exercise better choice and control over their living arrangements, over their supports and over their lives.

The problems are repeated. We shouldn’t be surprised but the situation is not improving in the way we expect.

The providers who were subject to the inquiry and their willingness to cooperate and commit to continuous improvement of their services are to be applauded, as is the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission for producing this comprehensive report.

But my most sincere thanks is reserved for the more than 60 people with disability who contributed to the report and to their families who shared their own experiences. Some of the stories were harrowing but their input was invaluable and will be a significant factor in improving the system.

As Labor has said, we will restore the NDIS to a scheme which gives peace of mind to people with disability and their families. A scheme that supports people with disability to live as independent and fulfilling a life as possible.

Reform of the NDIS is not a simple or fast process, given its years of drift under the previous government. There is a lot of work to do but we are making headway, as we must when there is so much at stake.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 18 January 2023.