By Jonathan Craig
If you’ve been involved in the BCA or general disability communities in the last few months, you’ll probably have heard about independent assessments. We believe it’s important to understand what they are, despite the fact that for the moment, the introduction of independent assessments has been put on hold pending further consultation. This announcement comes following vigorous advocacy efforts throughout the disability sector to have the roll-out of independent assessments stopped.
Despite the ceasing of the roll-out which was to commence in July 2021, now is a critical time to continue our strong advocacy. New NDIS minister, Linda Reynolds, has said that she will consult broadly prior to continuing any roll-out of independent assessments. BCA will make the most of the opportunity to flag our concerns about independent assessments, as detailed in the rest of this article.
BCA has been in conversation with the NDIA about independent assessments, through regular meetings, and through a forum held on the 17th of March, where NDIA CEO Martin Hoffman answered questions from CEOS in the sector.
At a BCA Inform event last November, we also gave you the opportunity to ask questions directly of Dr Sam Bennett, General Manager of the NDIA’s Policy, Advice and Research Division. With more than 50 BCA members in attendance, this was clearly a hot topic. You can listen to a recording of the forum, or read a summary of the event, on our website.
Because this is a significant change which will likely have a big impact on people who are blind or vision impaired, we’re working hard to provide you with new information as it arrives, and we’ll continue to take every opportunity to raise the concerns of our community with the agency.
But we also realise that it’s extremely hard to keep up with, or even understand developments relating to the NDIS. If you’re confused about independent assessments, that’s ok. That’s what we’re here for. In this article, we’ll try to answer some of the biggest questions that have been raised with us so far, so hopefully you’ll leave with a better understanding of what’s changing and how it might affect you.
Importantly though, this information reflects the NDIA’s current thinking. They have engaged in a second pilot of independent assessments, as well as an extensive consultation process, to ask us how we can make this system work well. It’s highly likely that independent assessments will be implemented, but feedback from participants in the pilot and sector advocacy may well change the way they work by the time they roll out. Nonetheless we believe that as part of our commitment to empowering you, it’s valuable for you to be informed about what may happen. Having the information available to you will help you make up your own mind about independent assessments.
What are independent assessments anyway?
Independent assessments are a new process which all NDIS participants and applicants will need to take part in in the future. The NDIS Act 2013 talks about “functional capacity” in relation to people with disabilities. Our NDIS plans are meant to build our capacity.
That’s why it’s called an insurance scheme – it’s designed to invest in people earlier in order to save the government money later on.
But in order to know whether the scheme is working properly, the NDIA has to measure our functional capacity. This is what an independent assessment is designed to do. Essentially, independent assessments are a new process the NDIA is introducing to help work out what your functional capacity is.
Why is the NDIA introducing them?
According to the agency, independent assessments are being introduced to:
- Take away the financial, time and energy burdens of gathering evidence about disability by creating a process they fund and perform themselves
- Ensure that people with similar needs receive similar levels of funding.
Will I have to have an independent assessment?
From mid-2021, all people applying to the NDIS will need to take an independent assessment to access the scheme. From late this year you will also need to take an independent assessment as part of a plan review process.
What will an independent assessment decide?
The measurement of functional capacity which results from your independent assessment will establish two things:
- Whether you are eligible for the NDIS. This is alongside the requirement for medical evidence of disability which remains in place.
- The funds in your plan, apart from some extra items which you can ask for in your planning meeting.
What this would mean is that the planning meeting would no longer be the place where many of the decisions about your funds are made. You would receive a “draft plan” before your meeting, which would contain your budget. The NDIA imagines that the planning meeting, in future, would mostly be about helping you work out how to spend your funds to meet your goals. In this meeting you could also have specific supports added to your plan that weren’t covered in the independent assessment. Examples for our cohort might include dog guides, braille displays or electronic magnifiers.
Who will be my independent assessor?
The NDIS has established a panel of organisations who will be delivering independent assessments. The eight organisations on the panel were announced in late February. These are mostly allied health organisations, employing workers including social workers, occupational and physiotherapists and psychologists. The intention is that most people will be able to choose between multiple organisations who could do their assessment if they prefer the approach of one over another.
What does an independent assessment involve?
You and your assessor will work through a series of assessment tools, which the NDIA believes will be able to collectively measure a person’s capacity regardless of their disability. This will mainly involve you answering questions. Some require comments, some ask you to answer yes or no, and some ask you to answer on a scale (e.g. no difficulty to extreme difficulty).
This will take quite a long time because of the number of questions you will need to answer. The NDIS says it could take between 3.5 and 4 hours. One of the assessment tools is intended to be taken by someone you know, be that a family member, friend, or support worker. This tool asks them questions about what level of difficulty you have with various tasks.
People taking part in the second pilot have been asked to take part in a performance component, also known as the “participant interaction” section of the assessment. In this part of the assessment participants are asked to perform a task in front of the assessor. A fact sheet provided to pilot participants by Healthstrong, one of the organisations on the panel of assessors, gave examples like “making a cup of tea or a snack” or “scrapbooking”.
Can someone attend my assessment with me?
Yes. The NDIA has confirmed that you will be allowed to have someone come with you to your assessment. You will also be able to choose where you have your assessment (e.g. at home, work or elsewhere).
You’ll be able to take breaks if you need to, or even have your assessment over multiple sessions.
If assessors are paid by the NDIA, how are they independent?
The assessors are independent of the NDIA, in that they work for other organisations to provide information to the agency. They are also independent from participants and applicants, because the intention is that your assessor won’t know you personally, so they won’t be biased in any way.
Why are people worried about independent assessments?
BCA has advocated for a number of NDIS participants and applicants who haven’t received the supports they need. When this happens, it can often be because NDIS planners don’t know much about people who are blind or vision impaired, and struggle to understand what they need. BCA has worked with the NDIA to create videos and fact sheets which could help planners develop supports for us. But the NDIA is planning to hire a workforce of independent assessors who have little knowledge about how our disability impacts on our lives.
The assessment tools which the NDIA plans to use haven’t been well-tested with people who are blind or vision impaired. There is concern that within the context of generic, standardised assessments, it will be hard to explain the impact of blindness or vision impairment, and how supports could help address those impacts.
In short, there are concerns that these assessments won’t be able to measure our functional capacity as well as they can for others, and that as a result, we will struggle to get the supports we need.
We would echo most of the disability sector in saying that the participant interaction section could feel demeaning. But we’d also say that it’s particularly complicated for people who are blind or vision impaired. You might be able to make a cup of tea easily at home, but you may not be able to safely travel in the community at all. So how do you choose a task that reflects your real capacity? And will an assessor understand the context in which you’re performing a task?
We would also like to see more information about what you can do if you’re dissatisfied with an independent assessment or its results, since independent assessments and assessors won’t be accountable to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in the way that planners and other decision makers are.
What are you doing to address these problems?
In our conversations with the NDIA, we have clearly outlined our concerns. We have built a good relationship with the agency over time, so we feel they are receptive to the points we’re making. We have also worked with them to bring about improvements to the scheme in the past, like making sure people who are blind or vision impaired can access materials in their preferred formats.
We are eager to see results from the second pilot of independent assessments, and get a better idea from them about how well the assessors and assessment tools will work for us. The NDIA has said it wants to create a “better and fairer” scheme, and we’re hoping to work closely with them to make sure it’s better and fairer for people who are blind or vision impaired, whatever that requires.
You can read recent submissions BCA has made to the Department of Social Services on independent assessments which is available on our website.
What should I do?
If you’ve read this far, you’ve already done a lot. Hopefully, you now feel more informed about what independent assessments are and why they’re inspiring so much conversation. Again, we’d remind you that the NDIA is giving us opportunities to tell them what we think of these plans and how to improve them. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.
We are also working to identify new opportunities for you to talk directly with the NDIA. Keep reading our member updates to learn about these as they arise. And if you took part in the second pilot of independent assessments, it would be really helpful if you could call our office, or email us, to tell us about your experience, good or bad.