Western Australia’s Activ Foundation has been supporting people living with intellectual and developmental disability for over 67 years, helping them enjoy full participation in communities and empowering them to pursue the life they choose.
CEO and Managing Director Danielle Newport joined Activ in 2011, serving in a variety of executive roles before becoming CEO. Currently serving on the national board of the National Disability Service, Ms Newport is passionate about supporting people living with disability and committed to improving the lives of Activ’s customers. Ms Newport spoke to The Australian Business Executive about the organisation’s courageous beginnings, how businesses and communities can help support people living with disability, and the benefits and potential of the government’s new National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Creating a better world
“Activ was founded in the early 1950s, here in Western Australia,” Ms Newport says, “by families who had children living with intellectual disability. They were quite exceptional people, who didn’t accept the status quo in the 1950s, and had the courage and vision to create a better world.” This fundamental belief in people continues to drive the company today, as it endeavours to support people living with disability to fully participate in their communities and pursue the life that they choose. “We have about 100 locations across WA, and we support approximately 2,000 people living with disability. We also support their families. So that’s a significant number of people, where we play a vital role in their lives.”
More than half of Activ’s customers are employed through the company’s Australian Disability Enterprise (ADE), which provides products and services to commercial clients throughout Western Australia. ADEs are organisations funded by the Department of Social Services and the NDIS, which offer a wide range of employment opportunities to approximately 20,000 people with moderate to severe disability across Australia. “We have 1,000 employees living with disability, and employment for people with disability is statistically significantly lower than for those without disability: 53% compared to 83%. I would like to encourage all businesses to think about how they can make their organisations better by including and supporting people living with disability.”
The understanding that diversity strengthens an organisation, driving better performance, is finally becoming widespread in the business world. Ms Newport is keen for every business in Australia to help improve inclusion for people living with disability.
There has been a significant shift in attitude towards disability since the foundation was first formed, with the focus in recent decades being on the responsibility of communities in their treatment of people living with disability. “When we were founded, nearly 70 years ago, people probably thought about people living with disability in terms of how they could fit into our communities. What’s different now is that we think about how our communities can accommodate people living with a disability. We think about our communities being accessible and inclusive.” The sheer size and scope of Western Australia creates unique issues for organisations such as Activ, issues that don’t affect other states and territories across Australia and that the organisation works hard to combat.
“Being a resources-based economy,” Ms Newport says, “we have some real challenges with the cost of doing business in Western Australia, which isn’t always reflected in universal pricing across Australia.” Another significant issue is the number of remote communities in the state, many of which have struggled to receive any support, not just for those living with disability, but for all disadvantaged members of the community. “We also suffer with remoteness from Canberra. We’re a long way away from our decision makers. That adds to our cost of business, but it also makes it more difficult to build those really effective partnerships and relationships with government.”
Leveraging choice for people living with disability
Since joining the organisation in 2011, Ms Newport has seen a number of exciting projects that have made a real difference to the running of the organisation, not least her own appointment as Managing Director and CEO. “In 2016, we celebrated 65 years of our organisation, and in that same year we celebrated our first female CEO, which is a milestone in an organisation that wants to be inclusive and accessible to everybody. I think it was an important step.” A year earlier, the organisation celebrated forty years of hosting Western Australia’s hugely popular Chevron City to Surf for Activ, the state’s oldest and most loved community fun run. The event takes place every year in five locations across WA, finishing with the famous hero event in Perth. But perhaps the most important development in recent times has been the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), a government scheme designed to increase choice and control for people living with disability across Australia.
“In this year, we’ve had our first customers transitioning into the formal federal NDIS system, which is an enormous milestone for us. The NDIS is such a fundamental shift in the way we work, it’s really important that we celebrate entering that scheme.” Although the idea of giving more choice and control to those living with disability may seem natural to many people, historical systems were rigid and provider-focused, whereas now the focus is on participants and their goals. “Organisations have been block-funded by government [in the past], restricting the portability of funding, therefore decreasing choice and control. Under the NDIS, people living with disability and their families have greater choice over how, when and from whom they receive a service that fits their individual needs.” Many people who will be supported by the NDIS require a level of personal, intimate support through their funding, making it vitally important that the right people are chosen to provide these supports.
“What it means for us as an organisation is we go from two or three government customers to 2,000 individual customers. That’s an opportunity for us to review how we listen to our customers, how we make sure that they have choice in how we support them, and really establish a relationship of equals with our customers.” The scheme is designed to help people living with disability ensure they are receiving support from the right organisation for them. The NDIS will certainly present challenges, for organisations and customers, but once it becomes more settled, there are huge benefits on offer for both parties. “In the future, as people living with disability get used to having choices, we’ll be able to co-design programs with them, to involve the community more, and I’m sure there are opportunities for technology to really leverage choice for people living with disability.” In the long term, people living with disability will have access to informal supports within their communities, ensuring disability becomes a community-wide issue, not one that is limited to those living with disability and their families.
Ms Newport likens the issue to another that is close to heart, gender inequality. “Nobody expects gender inequality to be fixed by women,” she says. “They understand that men need to be part of the solution.” “I think the community needs to realise that the NDIS alone isn’t going to fix the problem. The problem is one that we all have to come together and fix, and that’s about our expectations and aspirations for people living with disability, but also our expectations and aspirations for our organisations and how accessible they are.” At a fundamental level this must include a collective realisation that the best possible outcome for people living with disability is one that both benefits and is supported by society as a whole. “18% of Australians live with disability,” Ms Newport concludes. “This is everyone’s issue. It’s not a minority issue; this is a mainstream population issue. If everybody got involved and worked towards better outcomes, I think we could achieve amazing things.”
Find out more about Activ Foundation by visiting www.activ.asn.au.