The NDIA abandons best practice to save pennies in this blind man’s tribunal case

By Amber Schultz

June 19, 2022

Bill Shorten is the new minister for the NDIS. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Richard Hamon has hundreds of pages of documents to go through as part of his Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) case. Legally blind due to a degenerative genetic condition, he’s seeking more funding under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) to allow him to travel for specialist vision assessments so that he can buy assistive technology. 

In the meantime, he needs the AAT documents in audio format. He’s been asking for this for the full 18 months the case has been with the tribunal. When he finally received them he found that instead of hiring professional readers, who note paragraph sections to allow listeners to stop, start and skim through the documents, Hamon says they have been read by National Disability Insurance Agency staff. The 17.5 hours of recordings feature popping from the reader being too close to the microphone, distortion, and no way to jump to page or paragraph sections. 

“It’s excruciating to listen to,” Hamon tells Crikey. He says the NDIA argued that professionally producing the audio files would cost too much. “I raised the concern from the outset that they would fail to meet accessibility standards.” 

Funding goes to the wrong places

Hamon lives in regional Tasmania, where specialists are limited. He’s requesting trips to Melbourne for assessment through Vision Australia to be fully funded by the NDIA so that he can purchase assistive technology with his NDIS funding. The NDIA could avoid producing the audio files by funding this trip. It has already agreed to fund the technology. 

Hamon says his experience in the AAT has caused severe health problems due to stress, and spinal problems have arisen by hunkering over his computer while he waits for his assistive technology assessments.

“[The NDIA] are not interested in cooperating with people with disabilities. They’re only interested in contesting with them,” Hamon says. 

There’s been a 400% increase in people with disabilities disputing their NDIS plans in the AAT. The NDIA spends upwards of $17.3 million a year on external legal firms to fight people with disabilities’ claims. Hamon has a disability advocate representing him. The NDIA has hired the high-profile law firm HWL Ebsworth.

Hamon has gone back and forth with the agency, in one case putting forward a cost estimate for a trip to Melbourne of $45.39 in per-kilometre driving costs to get him from the ferry to a nearby hotel for a medical appointment. HWL Ebsworth lawyers contracted by the NDIA then checked the figure, finding a $2.38 cost discrepancy. 

Hamon says NDIA was concerned about the cost management of hiring professionals: “If they’ve cost cut on audio and I don’t find them accessible to sue because they’re so exasperating to listen to, then that puts me back in the AAT.” 

The NDIA told Crikey it “makes provisions for and ensures accessibility to enable full engagement with the processes” and “does convert documents it has created to accessible formats” when lodging them to the AAT.

It didn’t say whether it has policies around producing documents in accessible formats, though Hamon says the files provided don’t fit with best-practice guidelines

Accessibility isn’t difficult

Accessibility in the AAT is a concern too. An August 2021 joint submission signed by 20 disability organisations recommended the NDIA co-design improvements to make the AAT process more accessible. It found the process is “unnecessarily complex, slow and difficult to navigate” and the NDIA conducts the appeals process in an “improper and unfair way”. 

There are two things that have to happen to make content accessible, CEO of the Centre For Accessibility Australia Dr Scott Hollier says: “People with disabilities have to have the right tools on their device of choice … and content needs to be prepared in a way that works with those tools.” 

Assistive technology includes a text-to-speech program, screen magnifiers and high contrast colour scheme built around the web content accessibility guidelines — an international standard to ensure content is accessible. If formatted correctly, a screen reader will announce subheadings, bullet points and describe images, with users able to pick the voice and speed of the reader.

“But it only works if the content is designed to that standard,” Hollier said. The NDIA website has struggled to meet these standards previously, although it has undergone multiple redesigns. 

Public-facing digital content in Australia has to comply with a version of these standards or face breaching disability discrimination laws. But, Hollier said, it’s up to a complainant to lodge a complaint and prove the company hasn’t done the right thing — rather than it being up to the company to demonstrate it is complying with the standards. 

“It’s always an uphill battle in Australian policy.”

This article is republished from our sister publication Crikey.


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