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Why Language Matters in NDIS Decision Making

Health and disability services are completely dependent on one another, but are unfortunately not always equip to communicate. We look at the Summer Foundation resource designed to tackle this problem.

By Sara Gingold

Updated 15 Apr 20245 Nov 2018

Humankind has a perhaps unique ability to speak without actually communicating. Amazingly, this is true even for people using the same language. Those of us working in the NDIS witness this phenomenon all the time between two parties that are completely dependent on each other, but don’t seem particularly equipped to talk to each other- disability and health. The NDIS relies on advice from health and allied health practitioners to inform decision making and health depends on the NDIS to be able to discharge people into the community. Yet both sectors come with their own jargon, and sometimes the meaning of words gets lost in translation. In many cases, the same word can have a completely different meaning, depending on who you are talking too.

The Summer Foundation has created a resource to combat this problem- ‘Getting the Language Right.’ The introduction demonstrates the issue around language through the word ‘rehabilitation.’ In different contexts, the word’s meaning changes. Take, for example, the case of John, who is looking to be discharged from hospital after a serious spinal cord injury. Before he can return home, he needs the support of the NDIS.  

In the application form, his doctor might write, “John needs further rehabilitation in order to aid his recovery.”

What they might have meant, in disability language, was that John requires capacity building supports in order to break down some of the barriers he now experiences as a result of his injury. However, the NDIS decision maker will most likely see the words “rehabilitation” and “recovery”, and send John straight back to the health department (figuratively, of course). Both the health practitioner and NDIS decision maker will probably both be angry at the other, but really neither of them actually is in the wrong. The health practitioner is using the language they have been trained to use and the NDIS decision maker is following rules they have no choice but to obey. Yet the sad reality is that this leaves John without the support he needs. 

But if the health practitioner had just said, “John need capacity building supports in order to aid his social and economic participation post accident,” then the NDIS decision maker would most likely just give this a tick. Just a few words, and John’s future has completely changed.

There are two outcomes that ultimately need to be met. Firstly, the NDIS needs to have accurate information that they can use to inform decision-making. Secondly, Participants should not be missing out on supports because a well-meaning health practitioner used the wrong words. Both these outcomes can easily be met if both sides take the time get the language right.

The Summer Foundation resource supports health practitioners to learn how to make the connection between a health condition and an impairment. From there it looks at how impairment impacts on a person’s activity level and participation. These links may appear self obvious to a health practitioner who has spent time working directly with the person, but they are crucial pieces of information for anyone making an NDIS eligibility decision.

The resource also looks at the reasonable and necessary criteria, and how to address them. It explains NDIS phrases that might aid in the health practitioners in explaining why the Participant needs a support.

There’s an old Arabic proverb- “Learn a language, and you will avoid a war.” You might not achieve world peace by handing this resource over to a health practitioner, but you can help avoid bureaucratic conflict and offer a lot of people peace of mind.  


Sara Gingold

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