Disability is an umbrella term covering a broad range of physical, mental, sensory, neurological, intellectual and developmental impairments. People with a disability have an ongoing impairment that impacts on their mobility, daily activities, communication and may hinder their capacity to fully participate in life.
Approximately 20% of Australians, or nearly 5 million people, live with some form of disability. This number is expected to increase as our population ages as older people experience higher rates of disability. The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is currently being rolled out around Australia with the goal of increasing access to supports and services for people with disabilities.
Allied health and disability
Allied health professionals use an enablement approach to work with people with disabilities to improve their health, wellness and capacity to participate in everyday life- at home, school or the workplace. Allied health practitioners also diagnose health issues arising as a result of a disability, support the disabled person with strategies to manage the disability, and provide therapeutic care.
Allied health professionals assess specific areas of impairment and provide assistive technologies to improve independence. Allied health roles in supporting people with disabilities are summarized below:
- Audiologists assess for hearing impairment and fit hearing devices
- Occupational therapists assess and intervene with strategies that enable people with disabilities to be as independent as possible, and to participate in meaningful self-care, leisure and productive activities in a range of home and community contexts.
- Optometrists and orthoptists provide services for low vision
- Podiatrists provide services promoting foot health and mobility
- Orthotists and prosthetists prescribe devices and that promote mobility, limb function and independence
- Physiotherapists, osteopaths and chiropractors can assist with musculoskeletal issues
- Exercise physiologists and physiotherapists also can provide health promoting wellness programs to develop strength, balance and prevent falls
- Arts therapists and music therapists provide services for people of all ages, including those experiencing dementia
- Dietitians assess people who have nutritional needs requiring specialised nutritional support that may include tube feeding. They also advise on nutritional strategies to manage chronic conditions such as diabetes
- Speech pathologists can assess and treat people with speech and swallowing difficulties.
- Psychologists and appropriately trained social workers, occupational therapists can provide services for people with disabilities arising from ongoing mental illness.
Common areas of work
Allied health professionals provide care and support for people with all types of disability including physical disabilities, psychosocial disability and developmental or intellectual disabilities. They provide services in all settings, from public and private hospitals, to outpatient clinics, community health centres, private practices, in the home, workplace, school, aged care centres, mental health facilities, sport centres and disability facilities.
Common areas of support include:
- Assessments, recommendations and support around functional tasks and activities of daily living, including personal care and eating
- Assessment of home and environmental aspects and assistance to identify equipment and sensory needs
- Therapeutic care related to the physical requirements of the disability
- Mental health support.
Accessing allied health disability services
All services for people with disabilities will soon be funded through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The NDIS is currently being rolled out across Australia meaning some people with disabilities are already able to access services under this Scheme while others will continue to access services covered by states and territories during the transition period.
People with disabilities will continue to use Medicare for general health-related issues, that are not related to their disability.
Individuals with disabilities and their families may need to request access to specific allied health services as disability support package planners are not always aware of the important roles that different allied health professions can play.