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NDIS Review Conversation Series: Paper No. 7

Closing employment gaps essential for NDIS to fulfil its promise

Key points

  • Work-related goals should be included in all NDIS plans for participants of working age
  • The NDIS should not fund employment supports for arrangements that do not uphold Scheme values, including ADEs and ‘supported employment services’
  • The NDIA should focus on identifying which programs aimed at advancing people into meaningful mainstream waged employment deliver the best results and ensure these are promoted and favoured in NDIS plans
  • The NDIA should showcase successful pathways so that these can be replicated and scaled up for the benefit of all


‘The disturbing reality is that labour force participation for people with disability in Australia has changed little over the past twenty years. As well as having a negative impact on individuals, such low participation remains a persistent public policy problem... The need for change is undeniable. Australia only stands to gain from increasing the workforce participation of people with disability.’


Employment has enormous benefits for a person, their workplace, the community, and the economy, as the Australian Human Rights Commission identifies in this quote.[i] Yet many Australians living with disability continue to be shut out of the workforce. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2018 shows that just 47.8 per cent of people living with disability were employed compared to 80.3 per cent of people without disability.[ii] The infrequency of data collection about people living with disability has created a significant information void since 2018, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is likely the Covid-19 pandemic has made this discrepancy even worse. Discrimination and unfair treatment persist, with 2018 data indicating that 45.2 per cent of workers living with disability experienced being targeted by an employer and 42 per cent by their work colleagues.[iii] At the same time, the median gross personal income of a person living with disability was $505 per week, less than half that of a non-disabled person at $1016 per week in 2018.[iv]

In its landmark 2011 report on Disability Care and Support, the Productivity Commission predicted that the creation of a new national disability scheme would improve employment outcomes and concluded that ‘even conservative assumptions lead to significant economic and employment effects’ for Australians living with disability.[v] Unfortunately, so far these effects have fallen well short of expectations. As of 31 December 2022, just 23 per cent of National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participants aged 15 to 64 were employed[vi], which is unacceptably low. The Scheme’s Participant Employment Strategy aims to ‘ensure at least 40 per cent of working age NDIS participants have employment or pre-vocational goals in their NDIS plan.’[vii] This aspiration also remains far too low.

In the seventh paper in this NDIS Review Conversation Series, we highlight the urgent need to address the poor outcomes of the current approach to supporting participants to enter and maintain meaningful mainstream waged employment. We focus on the importance of employment to living a good life characterised by valued roles in community and the personal resources necessary to create genuine ordinary choices in life. We address the problems of segregated and exploitative work arrangements under the Supported Employment Services Award and emphasise these approaches are inconsistent with Scheme values. We argue the NDIS should focus on identifying and investing in employment supports in participant plans that demonstrate the best prospects of achieving sustainable meaningful mainstream waged employment outcomes.

Importance of employment

Meaningful mainstream waged employment is one of the foundations of living a good life and maximising the opportunities of Citizenhood.[viii] In the fourth paper in this series, we focused on advancing people living with disability into valued roles in community life; being employed is one such valued role. It is self-affirming and contributes to a positive sense of self and personal wellbeing,[ix] while unemployment has the opposite effect of undermining self-worth. Employment also creates opportunities to learn and grow[x] and brings new relationships and connections[xi] into a person’s life. As such, employment exemplifies the promised Scheme outcome of social and economic participation.

Additionally, given the impact of a living wage on a person’s life chances, the presence of a sustainable employment income is critically important in providing this resource.[xii] Disposable income is a gateway to choice and control because, for most of us, our choices are funded by this personal income. Low income means low choice. Therefore, given employment delivers on the Scheme goals of choice and control, as well as social and economic participation, it follows that finding and maintaining employment should be a key feature of NDIS plans for working age participants.

All people have a right to work and to access the resources of paid employment. As a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), Australia has an obligation to ensure that citizens living with disability have the right ‘to work, on an equal basis with others; this includes the right to the opportunity to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive, and accessible to persons with disabilities’.[xiii] Australia’s ratification of the UNCRPD comes with responsibilities to ensure that people living with disability have a fair go in the labour market, are supported within their workplaces, and do not experience any form of discrimination, be it, in recruitment processes, pay and conditions, accessibility in work environments, career advancement, or health and safety.

Unlearning low expectations

The Productivity Commission’s 2011 report argued ‘passivity and low expectations should not be the default’ for Australians living with disability.[xiv] However, based on ABS data, it modelled that among prospective NDIS participants without jobs, about 70 per cent would be people who ‘say that they cannot work at all under any circumstances’, leaving about 30 per cent as the ‘main target group for employment assistance’.[xv] This demonstrates the prevalence of low expectations that continue to be deeply embedded and undermine the life chances of Australians living with disability. It may also be that this model based on flawed assumptions set the Scheme off on the wrong track in relation to producing employment outcomes. Regardless, the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and others must redouble their efforts to overcome the persistent low expectations the report refers to, not only among participants, but also families, allies, support workers, teachers, employers, governments, and the broader community.

The NDIA’s default expectation should be that all plans of working age participants include a work-related goal. The only reason that employment should not feature is if a person is already in meaningful mainstream waged employment and does not require funded support to maintain their connection to that employment (or if a person has taken retirement based on the proceeds of such employment). This default expectation will help overcome the deficits approach and focus on strengths and skills that can be harnessed for suitable work opportunities and increased life chances.

Ending segregation and exploitation

There are clear parameters that should apply to work-related goals and how the NDIS invests in participant employment outcomes consistent with fundamental Scheme values. First, we address what this should not include. The NDIS should not invest in what used to be called ‘sheltered workshops’ but are now given the more ‘uplifting’ label of Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs). ADEs employ people living with disability, typically supervised by non-disabled managers paid a mainstream wage, to undertake work to deliver a service or product the ADE sells, for example packing services, gardening, or firewood. Typically, the workers remain on the Disability Support Pension (DSP) and are paid a very small hourly rate (recently updated to a minimum of $4.75 per hour at Grade A from 30 June 2023[xvi]) for their involvement with the ADE. The effect of this arrangement is workers are kept in poverty with little prospect of entering mainstream employment. On this income level, a person cannot make the range of choices that are available to other employed Australians.

Typically, ADEs operate business models based on these very low pay rates, hence the demand for taxpayer subsidies to underpin even a minor pay increase, as was provided for in last week’s Federal Budget.[xvii] ADEs are incentivised to hold on to their most productive workers rather than enable their advancement into mainstream employment opportunities because this productivity ensures the ADE can fulfill its commercial commitments to customers. ADEs typically congregate workers living with disability and are a segregated provision contrary to Australia’s obligations under the UNCRPD and commitment to inclusion in Australia’s Disability Strategy 2021-2031.

Likewise, the NDIS should not fund other arrangements covered by the Supported Employment Services Award, including where people are placed to work in a supermarket, retail store, fast food outlet, or other business that operates a so-called ‘supported employment service’, which allows these organisations to exploit a pool of low-cost labour. These workers should be directly employed by the businesses involved with the same wages, conditions, and opportunities for career progression as other staff and supported through the implementation of any reasonable modifications they require.

Currently, there are about 16,000 people living with disability working under the Supported Employment Services Award[xviii] at either an ADE or through a ‘supported employment service’. This means 16,000 Australians are being kept in poverty. The NDIS should not fund supports for either of these arrangements because they do not adequately reflect Scheme values. Participant plans should be orientated toward supporting meaningful mainstream waged employment in settings where people living with disability are included not segregated. There are training arrangements in existing mainstream awards that provide authentic auditable employment pathways whereby a person earns an appropriate training wage for a fixed period. These arrangements should be utilised to create opportunities for people living with disability to enter the workforce with genuine prospects of progression into sustainable meaningful mainstream waged employment. These arrangements should also have sufficient flexibility to be tailored to support individual needs and any reasonable modifications.

Importantly, we are not proposing to close ADEs and leave workers unemployed, bored, and more isolated. Rather, we are arguing for an immediate transition to a new business model that would abolish ADEs in their current form, practices of segregation, and the Supported Employment Services Award that underpins the existing ADE approach of poverty maintenance, while supporting the organisations and their employees to thrive in new ways. Many who oppose change assume that all the ADE workplaces would be shut down and people would lose their employment, the opportunity to contribute, and the relationships that they hold dear within these settings. This is not what we want either. The key to successful change is an effective transition that brings workplace practices into the 21st century while maintaining the positive attributes of employment, including contribution and social connection.

Investing in meaningful employment outcomes

Having described what should not be funded, the second task is to set out what the NDIS should invest in instead. The NDIS should support people living with disability to fully participate in the mainstream labour market by finding and/or maintaining suitable meaningful waged employment according to their skills, interests, and aspirations. Naturally, it should fund the individual plan supports required to maintain any participant’s existing mainstream employment and for them to progress along an ordinary career pathway as their skills and experience develop. A participant’s current employment situation should never be treated as static, unchangeable, or indefinite, in the same way that most people undertake a range of roles with various employers and seek advancement in position, responsibilities, and income throughout their working life.

Moreover, there needs to be a significant increase in the investment and effort to achieve employment outcomes for the 77 per cent of NDIS participants who are not currently employed. There are a range of endeavours across Australia and overseas that are seeking to lift people living with disability into sustainable mainstream employment. The NDIA should focus on learning which of these ventures hold the most promise and have the greatest success and ensure these models are promoted and favoured in plan considerations. To some, this statement may seem overly simplistic, but we argue this is because it holds a simple truth that is often lost. If something works well, and more people could benefit from it, it makes sense to tell those people about it and encourage them toward it. Conversely, if something does not work well, stop spending money on it, and try something else. Indeed, the need to restore simplicity to the Scheme and how it seeks to advance people into social and economic participation has been a central theme throughout this NDIS Review Conversation Series.

We encourage the NDIA to find ways to showcase great pathways into mainstream employment, including information about how they work, so they can be replicated and scaled up, noting that the NDIS is often not the only, or best, source of funding for these pathways. For example, JFA Purple Orange is currently undertaking the Road to Employment (R2E) project funded by an Information, Linkages, and Capacity Building (ILC) grant from the Department of Social Services (DSS). This project has demonstrated success through an industry-based approach in the aged care, finance, and local government sectors. It provides a range of initiatives to build employer confidence and capacity to employ people living with disability, including mentoring, sector-based communities of practice, and disability inclusion training. Each industry working group has designed a tailored approach. For example, in the aged care sector a traineeship program has so far supported six people living with disability to enter ongoing mainstream employment and complete a Certificate III level qualification at the same time.

This role in showcasing pathways should include a focus on ways people living with complex disability can be assisted into employment, such as through leveraging methodologies like customised employment[xix] and microenterprises[xx]. It must not be assumed that a person living with complex disability is not capable of entering paid employment. When the NDIA and others imagine the possibility of employment for a person of working age, it creates a future for that person that includes employment in it. Conversely, if the NDIA or others in a person’s life, do not consider this possible for the person, then that person’s future has been decided for them and is bleaker as a consequence. The NDIA should hold true to the possibility of meaningful mainstream paid employment for all working age participants and defend this principle always.

The bigger picture: shifting perceptions of employability

Research shows that diverse workforces perform better and create a competitive advantage for commercial businesses.[xxi] Yet, Australians living with disability continue to encounter significant barriers to entering mainstream employment and it is extremely important that broader work is undertaken to change this. Under Australia’s Disability Strategy 2021-2031 and the accompanying disability employment strategy ‘Employ my ability’, all tiers of government have committed to increasing employment levels of people living with disability and tackling barriers. The NDIS has a crucial leadership role to play in shifting perceptions about employability including through helping to create a greater presence and visibility of people living with disability in the Australian workforce and undertaking senior roles.  


Advancing Australians living with disability into meaningful mainstream waged employment is a critical promise[xxii] of the NDIS. Yet, as the Scheme reaches its 10th anniversary, results have fallen well short of expectations. Significant gaps in employment outcomes compared to non-disabled Australians persist and the trajectory is stagnant. Segregated and exploitative arrangements that exist under the Supported Employment Services Award are not the answer. We must focus on identifying and replicating the pathways into mainstream employment that demonstrate the best outcomes and when an approach does not work, try something else. Delivering on the promise of greater employment outcomes will not only have enormous individual benefits for a person’s access to choice and social and economic participation, but also boost national productivity at a time of significant worker shortages across the economy.

In the next Paper in our NDIS Review Conversation Series, we will return to the fundamental values that underpin the Scheme and how these should provide the context for decision-making to promote sound coherent outcomes.

► Join the conversation at our To The POint webinar

Tell us what you think about the NDIS and employment, share your ideas for reform, and help raise expectations about what the NDIS Review can deliver at our seventh To The POint webinar on Monday, 22 May 2023 at 12:30pm ACST (that is, 1pm AEST and 11am in the West). The webinar will run for 45 minutes and feature Tracey Wallace, Strategy Leader at JFA Purple Orange, discussing this Paper. Attendees will have the opportunity to ask questions and provide their feedback on safeguarding and the NDIS.

Register to join the To The POint webinar here.

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Plus, follow us on Linkedin, Facebook, or Twitter: @JFAPurpleOrange

► Our NDIS Review Conversation Series

With the NDIS Review underway, JFA Purple Orange is publishing a series of papers to help stimulate conversations about the future of the Scheme. Each fortnight, we will tackle a different topic of reform that we think is critical to the work of the NDIS Review. We strongly believe that the NDIS is an essential component of ensuring that Australians living with disability get a fair go at what life has to offer, but it must be strengthened and sustained. We are committed to playing a constructive role in developing ideas for reform that ensure the Scheme delivers on its original promise.

Watch out for Paper No. 8: Thinking about NDIS values: means versus ends on Monday, 29 May 2023.

► About us

JFA Purple Orange is an independent social profit organisation based in South Australia that undertakes systemic policy analysis and advocacy across a range of issues affecting people living with disability and their families. We also host a range of peer networks for people living with disability including people living with intellectual disability, physical and sensory disability, younger people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and people in regional South Australia. Our work is characterised by co-design and informed by a model called Citizenhood.

► Media enquiries

If you would like to republish this paper or interview Tracey Wallace, Strategy Leader at JFA Purple Orange, about it, please contact Marissa on (08) 8373 3833 or email



[i] Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘Willing to work: National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination Against Older Australians and Australians with Disability’, 2016, pp.6 & 231, available at
[ii] Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), ‘Disability and the labour force’, 24 July 2020, available at
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), ‘Disability, Ageing, and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings’, 24 October 2019, available at
[v] Productivity Commission, ‘Disability Care and Support,’ Report no.54, 2011, p.960, available at
[vi] National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), National - Quarterly Performance Dashboard, 31 December 2022, available at
[vii] National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), ‘NDIS Participant Employment Strategy 2019 – 2022’, p.13, available at
[viii] The Model of Citizenhood Support sets out a framework for how people can be supported to build their chances of a good life and maximise their Citizenhood. It identifies four different, interrelated, types of assets we can call upon, termed the Four Capitals.
[ix] A positive sense of self is a form of Personal Capital, which refers to how a person sees themself.
[x] This creates Knowledge Capital by enhancing what a person knows and learns.
[xi] This helps ensure a person has Social Capital. Social Capital requires having people in our lives whom we know and know us.
[xii] A wage is the optimal pathway to personal Material Capital, which refers to having money and other tangible resources in our lives.
[xiii] United Nations, ‘Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability’, Article 27, 2006, available at
[xiv] Productivity Commission, ‘Disability Care and Support,’ Report no.54, 2011, p.283, available at
[xv] Ibid, p.959.
[xvi] FairWork Commission, ‘Determination: 4 yearly review of modern awards—Supported Employment Services Award 2020’, 21 December 2022, available at
[xvii] Commonwealth of Australia, ‘Budget Paper No. 2: Budget Measures’, 9 May 2023, pp.204-205, available at
[xviii] Department of Social Services, ‘More opportunities and investment to support people with disability’, Media release, 9 May 2023, available at
[xxi] For example, see Australian Government, ‘Employ my ability’, 2 December 2021, p.11, available at; Australian Network on Disability, ‘Business benefits of employing people with disability’, 2021, available at; and Job Access, ‘New research review shows employers reap clear benefits by hiring people with disability’, 14 March 2023, available at    
[xxii] The Productivity Commission not only concluded employment outcomes would improve as a result of a new national disability scheme, its 2011 report included increased employment levels in its economic justification for the change. See Chapter 20 of Productivity Commission, ‘Disability Care and Support,’ Report no.54, 2011, available at