Claire Wittwer-Smith’s determination for people with disability to have the same opportunities as everyone else is unwavering. It was her vision for a fair and inclusive Australia that led her to establish My Plan Manager at her kitchen table in 2014. Fast forward eight years and My Plan Manager is now Australia’s largest (and leading!) plan management provider.
We sat down with Claire to get her perspective on the disability landscape in Australia today, to ask her view on the opportunities and challenges for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) moving forward, and to find out what gets her up in the morning.
When you established My Plan Manager in 2014, it was with a mission to create ‘an inclusive Australia where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential’. What does that look like in practice?
An inclusive Australia is where an individual can choose and access activities that they want to. There aren’t barriers to entry – which some views of disability can create – so everyone has the freedom to access and do what they want to be able to do.
Eight years after opening the doors to the business, what are your reflections on Australia’s understanding of disability and the importance of inclusivity and acceptance for all Australians?
Because all Australians are investing in the NDIS, I think there’s greater awareness of disability, inclusion and acceptance. Whether it’s been through negative or positive publicity, most Australians understand that there’s a scheme in place for many people with disability that provides them choice and control.
People know that together we are creating a fair Australia because we believe that, regardless of your situation, everyone should be able to have a basic quality of life and the NDIS provides a certain level of funding to enable that. That’s what being a civilised society is about – making sure no one is left behind.
The NDIS is constantly evolving. Leaning on your extensive background in the disability sector, what do you believe to be the Scheme’s greatest successes to date?
The empowerment of individuals. Giving individuals the ability to self-determine, the ability to hope, and the ability to plan for their future. That’s what I’ve loved seeing, and that’s what made me want to contribute to the shift from the old block funding model to the new NDIS model. People now have choice and control. They’re able to reflect on what they want their supports and services to look like, and they’re not locked in – they can try different things.
What challenges and opportunities do you see for the NDIS moving forward?
I don’t know what the NDIS will look like in 10 years’ time, but what I do know is it will evolve and change as people with disability become better at exercising their choice and control, and as they find more ways to discover what works for them.
I think there will be more data to learn from and better technology and platforms – like Kinora – to share those learnings. I truly believe plan management can play a crucial role in understanding and assisting people with that knowledge and those learnings so we can fast track them to show them the opportunities that might exist for them, without them journeying the long and hard way.
We can be that mechanism to show them the potential of what their package is. We have always done this – but there will be new and improved insights and knowledge to help.
My vision is that purchasing services and supports becomes seamless – that people don’t have to feel like their NDIS money is disability money, it just becomes part of day to day purchasing. How that evolves, I’m not sure yet.
My Plan Manager was one of the first plan managers in the country, and it is now the largest. What are your reflections on the business’ journey, and what has been your single most proud moment across the evolution of the organisation?
I think there’s roughly 1600 plan managers now. To think that plan management – which was so foreign to people – is now an option given to everyone, talked about in every planning meeting, and accessed by 54 per cent of participants is surreal, and definitely my proudest achievement!
Plan management is part of the NDIS now and is something that has demonstrated its ability to assist people to have an easier experience with the NDIS.
Tell us a little about you. What gets you up in the morning – and what keeps you awake at night?
Having a background in physical education, I love the opportunity to be physically active. Most mornings I’m walking or running on the beach with my golden retriever. I also love a challenge! I love it when people say, ‘I don’t think you can do that’ – I love the challenge of showing people what I can do. We developed the first app at My Plan Manager in the face of questioning looks. But I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t people be able to access their NDIS budgets in real time?’.
I’m determined and passionate that people with disability should be able to have the same opportunities as everyone else. It’s about fairness and equity. Everyone should be given the opportunity to blossom and be the best version of themselves, everyone should be given the opportunity to work hard and reap the benefits.
Maximising opportunities – that’s what gets me out of bed. I’ve got a strong desire to maximise my life and to make the most of every minute. I’m a Mum of four fantastic kids, and I want to provide them with the environment in which they can maximise their potential too.
What keeps me up at night is the NDIS and hoping it can take the right path to provide people with choice and control. I would hate to see the Scheme have so many constraints that people don’t have that flexibility.
Your children played an important role building My Plan Manager. Can you tell us about that?
It was really special. They believed in me, supported me, and even worked in the business. They offered insights into technology and what young people want to be able to do. Working together and sharing success together was such a unique and positive experience for all of us, and something I’m really grateful for.
You started your career in special education and moved into disability policy and planning, and then into the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) – then you founded My Plan Manager. What’s next on the agenda for you? How will you continue to feed the entrepreneurial part of your soul?
I’m going to continue having a curiosity mindset and looking for solutions. Every job I’ve had has been about problem solving, and I’d like to continue with that license to be able to imagine how Australia can become even more inclusive and fair.
You’re still very hands on in the business. What do you most enjoy doing, and why?
I enjoy thinking about how we can continue delivering a great service for the changing needs of our clients. So, thinking about the services, education and tools that our clients need, and what we need to do to evolve to provide these.
I still love hearing stories of staff really feeling like they’ve made a difference for clients. It’s special and rewarding to be able to have a workplace that provides a sense of purpose to an individual.