Wheelchairs can be expensive, and eight years ago when Janelle Armstrong needed a new one, her only option was to buy it second-hand off Gumtree.
“It was a bit daunting, because they’re meant to be custom-made, I was worried that it wouldn’t meet my needs,” she said.
“I’d always used a wheelchair since the age of ten to access the community and I can’t without one.”
I feel Ms Armstrong’s pain.
I have used a prosthetic leg since the age of two, my current one is over 15-years old.
Like wheelchairs, prosthetics need to be custom-made and cost a lot of money.
When you’re on a low or average income getting new mobility aids to access the community and live your life can seem impossible.
Ms Armstrong, 41, lives with spina bifida, and is a swimming instructor.
A Paralympic gold medallist from Atlanta in 1996, Ms Armstrong works up to five days a week teaching 4 to 7-year-olds to swim.
She first applied for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) three years ago so she could get a new wheelchair.
She was stunned when she was knocked back.
“I kind of found it a little bit funny that I was disabled enough to actually qualify for the Paralympics, but not disabled enough to qualify for any assistance on the NDIS,” she said.
Being in the pool is something Ms Armstrong and I have in common – we were on the Australian Paralympic swim team at the same time.
Swimming opened up opportunities for both of us, including the jobs we would do later in life.
“I’m passionate about teaching children those life skills that they need in the water,” Ms Armstrong said.
Like me, as she’s grown older, Ms Armstrong’s mobility has declined, impacting her ability to work and stay an active member of the community.
Earlier this year, she applied for the NDIS again, with support from the spina bifida clinic at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney.
This time she was successful.
Soon, Ms Armstrong will receive a new, custom-made wheelchair thanks to her NDIS funding.
“The longer I can stay mobile, the more I can work, the more I can be a contributing person in society,” she said.
NDIS funding allows participants to give back
For Ms Armstrong, the NDIS has been “life changing” and she’s concerned the benefits of the scheme have been forgotten in recent discussion about its cost.
“I’m a taxpayer too. I’ve worked. I always have. I always want to work,” she said.
“This NDIS funding actually allows us to do that, which means that in turn we can give back to the community.”
The NDIS was conceived to provide funding for people with the most profound and severe impairments to gain greater independence and improve their quality of life.
That included helping those who wanted to work to get into the workforce, earn an income and pay tax.
Like Ms Armstrong, I’m also employed and pay tax.
I intend to apply for the NDIS so that I can get a new, custom-made prosthetic leg, helping me stay in work and continue giving back to the economy.
The latest NDIS Quarterly Report showed there were 554,917 participants as of September.
A spokesperson for the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), which runs the NDIS, said 23 per cent of working age participants reported being in a paid job for two years or more.
Of these, 73 per cent were in open employment and 27 per cent in supported employment, where people with disability are given additional help to work, including support with daily work tasks and physical assistance and personal care.
It’s been a tumultuous year for the NDIS, with the government announcing a change in leadership and a review of the scheme’s design, operations and sustainability.
Many in the disability community, including myself, were enraged and hurt by questions about the viability of the NDIS and its economic value.
Discussion of an NDIS “blowout” after the October budget made us feel as though the disability community was a burden no-one wanted to bear.
The NDIS is the second-biggest social spending program after the aged pension but no-one questions the money spent on supporting older Australians.
Last year, modelling by think tank Per Capita showed for every dollar spent on the NDIS, $2.25 is delivered back to the Australian economy.
Helen Dickinson, a professor of public service research at the University of NSW in Canberra, said the focus had been on the costs of the scheme and not the benefits.
“The conversation is very one-sided at the moment,” she said.
The NDIS was designed as an investment scheme, Professor Dickinson said, to enable people with disabilities to live their lives the way they want to, including accessing employment.
“Many people in the NDIS are employed, so they are taxpayers and often they manage to get support through the NDIS so they can maintain that employment and continue paying tax,” she said,
NDIS Minister Bill Shorten said the current national conversation around the scheme was only looking at “one half of the picture”.
“Reform of the scheme doesn’t start with cutting and slashing the packages of participants,” Mr Shorten said.
“The problems in the scheme are not the people with disabilities.”
Mr Shorten has commissioned a review of the NDIS that should be completed in 12 months.
He said it would make sure that every dollar was going to people with disability and not “shonky” service providers rorting the scheme, charging for services not provided.
“I view the scheme as an investment but it doesn’t mean there aren’t problems to sort out and red tape.”
The NDIS isn’t welfare
A single mother of four, Ms Armstrong isn’t the only member of her family accessing the NDIS.
Her teenage son is also a participant and has come along in “leaps and bounds” now he has occupational therapy sessions and access to support workers for four hours a week.
Ms Armstrong said after spending two years in his bedroom, her son now has a resume and is actively looking for work.
With the help of support workers, Ms Armstrong is confident he’ll find employment and be able to support himself.
“He’s gone from somebody who is not even able to leave the house to now looking for a part-time job and actually being a member of the community,” she said.
“The NDIS is certainly not welfare.
“It’s certainly not, you know, allowing us to live the high life — it’s just giving us a level playing field with everybody.”
Additional reporting by the Specialist Reporting Team’s Celina Edmonds.