Barkuma’s response to the Disability Royal Commission – An interview with CEO Simon Rowberry

15th November, 2023

The Disability Royal Commission in Australia was established with the primary aim of investigating and addressing instances of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of individuals with disabilities. It sought to uncover systemic issues and individual cases of harm in various settings and make recommendations to prevent future occurrences while also promoting awareness of the rights and needs of people with disabilities. The overarching goal is to enhance safety, well-being and human rights.

The Disability Royal Commission has put forth 222 recommendations aimed at making the country a more inclusive place for people with disabilities to live, work, and play. This includes the introduction of an Australian disability rights act, a minister for disability inclusion and a department of disability equality and inclusion.

The Disability Royal Commission Taskforce is set to work across departments and agencies to coordinate the Australian Government’s response to the recommendations, engaging closely with the disability community.

Simon Rowberry, the CEO of Barkuma, shared his perspective, “While some recommendations may not seem immediately applicable, they all share the overarching goal of inclusivity, which aligns with Barkuma’s mission.

One of the key issues that Barkuma continues to explore is the future of supported employment. The Royal Commission’s recommendations raise questions about what constitutes segregation and what doesn’t. While some aspects of supported employment could benefit from further clarity in the recommendations, there’s hope that the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) Review will provide additional guidance.

“There’s still quite a few moving parts at the moment,” explains Simon, “but from our  perspective, we’re quite pleased to see terms like co-design and inclusive governance  included in the recommendations. These concepts are integral to the future of disability services and align with Barkuma’s strategic plan, positioning us to adapt to future recommendations effectively.”

A major challenge is the lack of clarity regarding budgetary implications. Simon points out that while the recommendations are important, the absence of defined budgetary information makes it challenging for organisations like Barkuma to implement these changes without a clear understanding of costs, funding sources and cost distribution.

A significant concern that the Commission aimed to address is whether supported employees are paid below the minimum wage. Supported employees are transitioning to the supported wage system, which is a productivity-based wage where individuals are paid a percentage of the award rate. This means that some individuals may earn above the federal minimum wage while others may earn less.

The complexity arises from these employees also receiving disability support pensions, which are linked to other benefits. Barkuma’s focus is on maximizing the earning potential of the people they support while acknowledging the complexities of balancing multiple sources of income.

The transition to the supported wage scheme must occur over a three-year period. “Barkuma is taking a proactive approach to help our supported employees transition as efficiently as possible. We aim to support as many individuals as it can in adopting the new wage rates promptly,” says Simon.

One recommendation seeks to phase out “special” or segregated education by 2051.

For Simon, there is still a place for special schools,

“On a philosophical point of view, I think that as a nation we need to make sure that we reserve choice and control for people.  For some individuals, special schools have been a really positive step; for others, they have not been the right fit. So I think it’s really important that we try and maintain a level of choice and control.” 

Another issue that has not been adequately addressed is transport, as highlighted by The Conversation,

“Transport is crucial to inclusion. In countless hearings and witness statements the commissioners heard disturbing accounts of inaccessible transport, and harassment and abuse on buses, trains and aeroplanes. But the report offers little in the way of practical reforms or recommendations for improvement.”

Simon describes how Barkuma’s clients have been affected by the cessation of crucial transport services or routes that terminate far from where individuals need to travel to.

“These issues potentially force vulnerable people into one-on-one situations with services like Uber or taxis, placing them at significant risk.  There is a need for collaboration between the Commonwealth and states to address these challenges, with states potentially becoming providers of last resort for transport issues, though funding sources remain uncertain. And there must be consultation with affected communities.”

The issues identified by Simon Rowberry highlight the complexity of governmental decision-making.  “One decision in one area can cause problems in other areas. It’s crucial to look at the big picture and think about how everything is connected when recommendations are put into action – we hope there will be engagement with key stakeholders.”

Barkuma remains committed to supporting individuals with disabilities and navigating the challenges and opportunities presented by the Disability Royal Commission’s recommendations. The organisation aims to adapt and evolve to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for those it serves.