Minister marks more changes in disability scheme reform aimed at boosting ‘persistently low’ labor participation

An overhaul of the federal government’s controversial Disability Employment Service (DES) could give people with disabilities more power to rank their job providers.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is about double that of other working-age Australians, despite the national labor shortage and higher spending on the DES.

The federal government spends more than $1 billion each year on the scheme, but participants have given mixed reviews of its effectiveness.

Under the program, providers receive outcome payments from the federal government when participants meet various goals, such as being in the program for a certain number of weeks.

Providers are ranked using a star rating system based on whether they meet key performance indicators.

In February, the Royal Disability Commission investigated the effectiveness of the DES program after earlier witnesses testified that “participants were rarely placed in meaningful work”.

The committee heard testimony from a former DES participant who described an unpleasant experience with a barista program without basic equipment.

In August, the government shut down services from 52 DES providers following a scheduled performance review.

A rolling review of the DES program has been extended for two years until the end of 2025, while the government develops a new disability employment model to replace the current scheme.

Social Affairs Minister Amanda Rishworth told at 7.30am that she would like to see changes that would give people using the DES more say over providers’ performance rankings.

A woman in a green jacket and white turtleneck with brown hair and glasses looking serious
Amanda Rishworth says the unemployment rate for people with disabilities hasn’t changed. (ABC News: Che Chorley)

“What struck me is that participants who have experienced the service don’t really have a say or get information about the evaluation process,” said Ms Rishworth.

“We need to drive improvement. We need to ensure that the service delivers quality outcomes for people with disabilities.

“I don’t think it’s doing that at the moment.

“By making sure these services are reviewed and reviewed on a much broader basis, I think you get a much better understanding of how these services are performing.

“We’ve had a very persistent level of unemployment for people with disabilities. It hasn’t really changed for decades.”

Ms Rishworth indicated that the changes could be made before the end of the assessment period in 2025.

“There is a long-term reform process that needs to take place, which is why we said we will extend the current contracts for two years,” she said.

“But that doesn’t mean those current contracts won’t be looked at carefully, and I’m certainly committed to short-term reforms as well.”

Of the 282,000 current DES participants, about 42 percent have a job and receive support.

Reports of DES providers who ‘don’t understand disability’

Disability advocate Samantha Connor said further consultation was necessary and welcomed as part of the ongoing reform process.

A woman with red hair and glasses is sitting outside.
Samantha Connor is the President of People with a Disability Australia.(ABC News: Glyn Jones)

“For the amount of money invested in DES, people have reports of bad results in general, bad providers, people who didn’t get support, [and] providers who don’t understand disability,” she said.

“It is very welcome to hear that the government has decided it is time to change that.”

Ms Connor said that for some people with disabilities, who like her were particularly vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19, finding work during the pandemic was even more difficult.

She said she had been unable to find suitable work during the pandemic and would like the review of disability care to take into account those who need to work remotely.

“COVID is something we have to consider,” she said.

“We need to look at how people can safely work from home, study from home and do things differently in a digital world.”

Participation rate ‘has not changed in 28 years’

Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott has made improving employment outcomes for people with disabilities a major focus of his tenure.

Dylan Alcott gives a thumbs up at an awards ceremony where he was named 2022 Australian of the Year.
Dylan Alcott was named 2022 Australian of the Year for his work as a disability advocate.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

He recently announced plans for a new online job platform aimed at improving the employment and hiring process for people with disabilities, which will receive $6 million in federal funding.

“The participation rate in this country hasn’t changed in 28 years,” he said at the launch of The Field earlier this month.

“There are currently half a million people actively seeking employment with disabilities and there is a labor shortage.”

Man in black shirt and cap in a cart with a coffee machine behind him.
Before starting his own business, Kyal Fairbairn found it difficult to get the jobs he wanted. (ABC News: Rhiannon Shine)

Perth-based business owner Kyal Fairbairn, who has an intellectual disability, said discrimination is still a major barrier to employment.

Mr. Fairbairn runs his coffee cart with the help of the support staff he employs through the NDIS.

“I started my own business because I wanted to be my own boss and show people that if you have a disability, you can do pretty much anything,” he said.

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