Refugee Council of Australia
Young boy with hearing aid sitting with family

Barriers and exclusions: The support needs of newly arrived refugees with a disability

The interface between settlement case support and disability services

While it is commonly thought that people from refugee backgrounds receive ‘intensive support’, this may not be the case. Mainstream disability services are generally unfamiliar with the specific needs of new arrivals coming from refugee backgrounds. Additionally, there is a lack of knowledge and competency to work with culturally diverse entrants who struggle through multiple layers of discrimination.

There is no ‘specific case-management funding’ within the NDIS to support new arrivals through the NDIS eligibility and pre-planning processes, and independent advocacy services are so overwhelmed with demand that often they deprioritise assisting culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) people with a disability from accessing the NDIS.

Limited resources for complex cases can mean that the additional needs of the individuals with a disability will not be adequately met. A service provider in New South Wales mentioned that they are wary that when a case is referred to the Complex Case Support program (now part of the HSP) they are not necessarily being aided by a case manager with the skills or relevant disability awareness expertise to assist people with a disability. There are few disability support workers and interpreters who are familiar with both the needs/experiences of refugees and those with disability. A high number of clients can also hinder the ability of caseworkers to make appropriate referrals and support their clients.

There is currently not enough funding in settlement services programs to help people find appropriate disability and health related services. Diversitat notes that there is a need for support and early intervention as part of on-arrival settlement to prevent individuals from getting ‘lost in the system’. As explained to RCOA in a consultation in Adelaide by a service provider who works with the Bhutanese community:

The caseworkers on the ground are hugely overworked and certainly what we’re finding is the complexity of the cases coming in now is really escalated.

There are also concerns that newly arrived community members do not have enough knowledge and support to be able to negotiate the services available to them, especially when the NDIS is designed to be a consumer driven service. Settlement services noted that it takes around 50 hours to support a newly arrived person to complete the NDIS referral, which these agencies are not funded to do. Many also were concerned about the insufficient number of interpreters, as well as the lack of cultural competency in the NDIS program and among NDIS contractors.

The Victorian Refugee Health Network highlights that there is a need for ‘culturally inclusive approaches’, and that consultation of individuals with a disability from refugee backgrounds would improve the quality of service provision. As the NDIS assumes an ‘understanding of needs’, it is imperative that the entire model of support takes into account cultural past and present experiences that may impact on an individual’s use of services. There is a lack of collaboration between existing mainstream disability services and settlement services, which results in services failing to meet the specific needs of humanitarian entrants with a disability.

Recommendation 5: Ensure specialised disability support officers in settlement services

The Department of Social Services should ensure that all refugees with a disability are provided with Specialised and Intensive Service support through the Humanitarian Settlement Program, in recognition of the case work needed to apply and contract services through the NDIS. Further, the Department of Social Services should consider ways to embed specialised disability support officers within on-arrival settlement services to ensure caseworkers supporting new arrivals with a disability can access staff who have expertise around the integration of disability and settlement service systems. Linking with local Disabled People’s Organisations or other disability advocacy organisations would be highly advantageous and would create positive outcomes.


Julie King, Niki Edwards, Ignacio Correa-Velez, Sara Hair, and Maureen Fordyce, ‘Disadvantage and disability: Experiences of people from refugee backgrounds with disability living in Australia’ (2016) 3 Disability and the Global South 844, 29.

AMPARO, The NDIS and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities: Aiming High for Equitable Access in Queensland (AMPARO Advocacy Inc, October 2016), 3, 20, 21, 29.

Diversitat Settlement and Community Programs, Diversitat Disability Findings Report (2016), 4, 6.

Advance Diversity Services, Issues That Refugees with Disabilities Face and Recommendations on Improving Policy and Practice to Better Support This Group, 3, 20.

Refugee Council of Australia, Australia’s Response to a World in Crisis: Community Views on Planning for the 2016-17 Refugee and Humanitarian Program (March 2016), 75.

Philippa Duell-Piening, Response to a Discussion Paper of the Victorian State Disability Plan 2017-2020 (Victorian Refugee Health Network, July 2016), 17.

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