NDIS architect Bruce Bonyhady urges rethink of independent assessments



An architect of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) wants the federal government to scrap its overhaul of eligibility testing for the program, saying the changes have spread fear and stress among Australians with disabilities.

Former National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) chairman Bruce Bonyhady says the government needs to “go back to the drawing board”, describing as “robo-planning” the new independent assessment model being introduced this year.

“Unfortunately, it is clear that the announcement of the introduction of [independent assessments] has created enormous fear, stress and concern amongst NDIS participants, their families and carers,” Professor Bonyhady writes in a submission to the agency as part of a consultation on the changes.

“It is therefore disturbing that the NDIA intends to replace the current planning process with an almost total reliance on independent assessments.”

Professor Bonyhady’s intervention adds an authoritative voice to criticism of the changes, which has so far been led by disability groups who say the new model threatens to undermine the original purpose of the scheme.

Until this year, applicants for the NDIS have relied on evidence from their treating doctors and expert medical reports to prove their eligibility and help determine their funding.

Under the new model, applicants will be examined by private contractors using questionnaires and other tools designed to assess capacity.

Existing NDIS participants will be required to undergo an assessment whenever they need to update their support plan.

But Professor Bonyhady says there is not enough evidence that the new tools adequately assess disability and help the agency to decide on an applicant’s support needs.

“It begins with a participant’s impairments, rather than their goals and aspirations,” he writes.

“It puts people in boxes before they have had a chance to outline what they would like to achieve or the ways in which they hope their lives change.”

Melanie Tran sits in her wheelchair in a park, she looks out into the distance.
Sydney woman Melanie Tran says three hours is not enough time for an assessor to understand her needs.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito, file photo)

He also says the assessment sessions — which have to run for at least 20 minutes, but typically last 2.5 to three hours — are not long enough to determine an applicant’s disability.

“It seems unlikely that assessors will be given the necessary time to carefully and accurately use the tools and so complete an accurate assessment,” he writes.

“Without sufficient time, the capacity to develop valid individualised plans will be undermined.”

The NDIA and the Minister for the NDIS, Stuart Robert, have declined to be interviewed about the new model and Professor Bonyhady’s criticism.

A man crosses his arms in front of shelves.
Stuart Robert says much of the fear about the changes is due to misinformation.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty, file photo)

In a statement, Mr Robert said the changes would align the scheme’s assessment processes with the original design of the NDIS by the Productivity Commission in 2011.

“The government acknowledges there is an inordinate amount of fear and stress amongst NDIS participants, largely due to the spread of misinformation about the reforms,” the statement said.

“The government completely rejects any notion there has been no consultation on reforms to the NDIS.”

Read the full statement from a spokesman for NDIS Minister Stuart Robert

Mr Bonyhady’s submission says the changes “could have the unintended consequence of potentially undermining the sustainability of the scheme”.

“It will inevitably lead to participants and their advocates identifying every impairment in order to increase the likelihood of a sufficient resource allocation,” he writes.

“It is also likely to generate inequity, as those who are better educated or more knowledgeable about the underlying assumptions of the questions will be more successful in detailing their impairments in a particular way.”

He uses the example of a question commonly used in functional assessment, “Can you dress yourself?”, which he says cannot always be answered with a “yes” or “no”.

“Without further information and context, simplistic responses risk misleading or inaccurate scores,” he writes.

“This jeopardises the validity of the entire assessment — and the resource allocation which will follow it.”

Last week, more than 20 disability organisations called on the federal government to abandon the new model, saying they had not been properly consulted.

Professor Bonyhady was the inaugural chairman of the NDIS from 2013 to 2016 and led the advisory panel that advised the Productivity Commission’s work to design the scheme in 2010-2011.

He writes in his submission that he also coined the name National Disability Insurance Scheme during the Rudd government’s 2020 summit in 2008.

Professor Bonyhady now heads the Melbourne Disability Institute at the University of Melbourne.

“For a decade and a half, meeting individualised needs, ensuring fairness and justice for people with disability, especially those facing multiple disadvantages, have been the driving forces behind my commitment to what is now the NDIS,” he writes.

“Regrettably, independent assessment is totally inconsistent with this vision.”

Read Bruce Bonyhady’s full submission


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