25 June 2020

WRITER: Jacinta Mazzarolo

The implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has been the one of the largest and most intensive social reforms of our generation. However, with this great upheaval also came challenges for existing structures through which some of the most vulnerable people in the community received support. As a result, a team of innovative trailblazers at the Government’s Department of Human Services – spearheaded by UniSA Business School Alumna, Gerrie Mitra – changed the game with an Australian first, right here in South Australia.  

Three simple words that changed everything for Tamara Harrison: “I eat banana”. Spoken by her three-year-old daughter, Sophia, a child who struggled to communicate due to the DiGeorge Syndrome that played havoc with the muscles in her mouth, the words were a godsend.

Speaking to the National Disability Insurance Agency, Tamara recalled being in tears within hours of receiving a symbols-based communication device with Sophia’s new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) funding, as all the frustration and tantrums that came with her affliction instantly dissipated, and she was able to communicate what she wanted to eat.

The implementation of the NDIS is the biggest social reform of our generation, and while it has brought much needed relief to many people like Sophia Harrison and her family, the process also upended the way in which disability services were previously delivered.

Faced with the impending upheaval of the existing disability support structure and tasked with implementing the NDIS in South Australia, Group Executive Director for Disability Services at South Australia’s Department of Human Services, Gerrie Mitra and team, faced a significant challenge: how to streamline individualised support services for people living with disability without losing the hundreds of dedicated allied health professionals working within the existing government system (the now devolved government agency Child and Youth Services).

Armed with years of business experience in both interstate and international markets, Mitra devised the idea to establish a new type of organisation – owned and operated by the current disability therapists – to deliver services under the NDIS. Enter Kudos Services.

Kudos Services is Australia’s first public service mutual, a fully integrated service provider and NDIS partner that helps young children with a developmental delay or disability and their families as they navigate the requirements and services most suited to support their children's needs.

What makes Kudos different from other support services is that it’s owned and driven by its members, talented and experienced allied health professionals with unmatched knowledge and care that comes with living and breathing the industry – day in, day out.

To Mitra, this employee-owned social enterprise was a natural progression from historical welfare and charitable systems. Yet, in order for the model to work, the allied health professionals wishing to join Kudos would need to take a leap of faith to leave their established government jobs.

“The public servants who were brave enough to come together to form their own new social enterprise were critical to the success of this new venture,” Mitra says. “I thought if we could get at least 40 staff to commit to Kudos, then we’d got a chance… but amazingly, the numbers just kept coming in and, in the end, more than 100 staff wanted to join.”

Mitra was honoured in this year’s Australia Day awards for creating Australia’s first employee-led Public Sector Mutual in the disability sector, advocating for staff and clients, and leading Australia through radical reform triggered by the NDIS.

“I felt really proud. It’s such a big team effort, and it was something ground-breaking and new,” she says. “Human Services reform is such a rewarding and interesting place to be and I feel lucky to be where I am.”

Full circle to little Sophia Harrison, and her family is ecstatic with the symbols-based communication device and the regular occupational, physio and speech therapies provided by her personalised NDIS plan.

She is just one of thousands of stories of Australians whose lives have been transformed by the recent implementation of the NDIS and establishment of Kudos Services – thanks to Mitra and her team, and most importantly, the leap of faith taken by South Australia’s allied health professionals.

Now the human services sector sits at an exciting nexus with many new job opportunities available as a result of the reform.

“Social enterprises lend themselves perfectly to people who are passionate about social good, and there are so many new job opportunities as a result of the NDIS reform” Mitra says. “I love what I do. Working in a job that has a good purpose and makes a real difference to the broader community is incredibly rewarding. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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