URBIS Report Highlights Ability Links' Ongoing Success

A “GROUND-BREAKING” social inclusion program has taken community support to a new level, according to an URBIS report released today.

Urbis has found that Ability Links NSW is achieving “remarkable outcomes’’ within a short space of time and having  a “profound effect” on people’s lives.

Ability Links NSW, a State Government funded program, was piloted in the Hunter in 2013 when it was rolled out alongside the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It is now operating statewide and is delivered in the Hunter Central Coast and Sydney Metro-South regions by the St Vincent de Paul Society NSW.

The first of its kind in Australia, it takes a whole-of-life approach to help people overcome social isolation, lack of confidence and skills and other barriers to community life.

A comprehensive evaluation by consultants Urbis Pty Ltd released this week says the program is widely successful, returning an economic benefit to the community of $3 for every dollar invested.

Urbis analysts estimate that 43,500 people engage with ALNSW each year.

They found that the program returned nearly $127 million worth of benefits during 2015/16. Of those, 36% were economic benefits such as increased participation in education, employment and new business activity – a net benefit of nearly $85 million.

One in 20 people have started volunteering, work experience, or connected to a disability employment service/ employer, or is receiving support to start their own business.

The URBIS report says that linked-in people report feeling safer, happier and more social connected.

The model has resonated strongly with Aboriginal people and communities as it encompasses an informal, flexible, non-bureaucratic and whole-of-family approach, the report says.

Special Works Manager for St Vincent de Paul NSW in Newcastle, Belinda McDaid, said the program is part of a seismic shift in the way people are being supported to participate in the community.

“Society has moved on significantly over the past ten years and there’s now an expectation of equal participation for everybody, and the Ability Links model itself enhances that concept, saying everyone should start on an equal playing field.

“That’s a real shift in social thinking. It speaks to a need which has existed in the community for a very long time.”

Ms McDaid said that while the NDIS was focused on shifting outcomes for individuals, the Ability Links model was about shifting outcomes in the community to enhance the experience for a person with a disability.

“The outcomes contained in the Urbis report show that where people with disability have been given the opportunity to be included, they have demonstrated that they can make a valuable contribution, and by their own doing, they are changing attitudes ...”

One of the crucial factors contributing to the program’s success was the value and impact of Linkers, their local knowledge and capacity to work effectively with people and network in their local communities, she said.

“For me it is really significant that we have a highly motivated and engaged workforce who are totally dedicated and committed to the model.

Senior Operations Manager for Support Services for the St Vincent de Paul Society NSW in Sydney, Terina Stibbard, said the program was taking a ‘70s approach to the notion of community.

“We’re almost retro in our response with what we’re doing and people really embrace it,’’ she said.

“Ability Links is doing in the community what we were doing in the 70s when I grew up. We would support each other, reach out to each other, and ask people how they were going. If someone had passed away, or if someone had a sick relative, we would reach out to them, and we were always open to that.

While other programs and services were focused on individuals, or on businesses and organisations, Ability Links was looking at both sides, bringing people together to build the capacity of communities to be inclusive, Ms Stibbard said.

“Linkers are doing both and they are doing both in a respectful. People are often hesitant to embrace people with a difference until they hear from those people, and we bridge that gap.

“It’s about embracing difference and embracing inclusion so we are more of an open society.”