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For people with disability, consistent access to reliable supports is vital. But keeping those supports in place across the festive season can get complicated and leave you feeling vulnerable and alone – especially if the providers you count on are taking time off for the holidays.

We chatted with Cassandra Bell, a specialist support coordinator at Blue Iris Support Services, to get her tips for managing the impact of the festive period on supports. Emily* – another experienced support coordinator – also gave us some useful insights and ideas.

When your regular support worker takes a break

If your regular support worker is taking time off, there are things you can do to manage disruptions and maintain continuity of supports. What you do will depend on whether your support worker is independent or employed by a service provider, and if you have a support coordinator, a Local Area Coordinator (LAC), or neither.

With that in mind, if your support worker tells you they won’t be available, we’ve got some tips to guide you on what to do next.

Build rapport and keep dialogue with your provider open

If the person who supports you is employed by a service provider, their employer will know in advance that they’re taking annual leave, and it will be their responsibility to cover the absence with a different staff member.

Make sure to keep communication open with both your support worker and the organisation they work for, so you’re told well ahead of time about any planned absences and given the opportunity to have input into which replacement staff are engaged to support you.

“If your support worker is independent and they tell you their intention is to go on leave, and you have a support coordinator, let them know,” says Emily. “Your support coordinator will discuss your options with you.”

Some of the options worth exploring include:

  • seeking an alternative provider to cover the leave period
  • changing your support roster to enable you to work with your favoured provider
  • increasing your access to informal supports for the period of leave, if you aren’t comfortable with the other providers that are available

“If you don’t have a support coordinator and your support worker’s independent, it’s wise to have a plan in place for when they’re not available,” says Emily.

According to Cassandra, if you have a good rapport with your support worker, you may want to consider asking them to help you to identify other providers to help fill support gaps.

“If your support worker is unable to assist, you or your support coordinator can always touch base with your LAC office to seek assistance to connect to additional providers over the break period,” says Cassandra.

She says LACs are well networked and can usually assist National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participants with referral and connection to new providers. Recovery coaches and social workers can also help with support connection.

Plan ahead and prepare

Whatever supports you have in place, preparation is key.

“Holiday periods often make access to supports difficult,” says Emily. “Service providers often have increased support requests over holiday periods and reduced staffing availability, and independent and sole traders may have reduced availability over holiday periods too.”

“Don’t leave it until the last minute to ensure you know what’s happening with your supports.

“You should also check the service agreement you have in place with your support provider. What does the service agreement say the support provider will do in the event that your usual supports are unavailable? What are the required notice periods for either party cancelling a shift?”.

Cassandra says it’s good to communicate with providers, so you’re prepared for known and unforeseen events.

She recommends keeping a diary or calendar of leave planned by your regular support workers and, wherever you can, starting conversations early to help with advance planning so you can secure the supports you need.

Public holidays and weekends

There are several public holidays and weekends during the festive period, and across all of them providers typically charge higher rates. It’s critical to factor these rates in to ensure you don’t run out of funding.

“If you’re not funded for support hours on weekends or public holidays, it’ll be important to review this with your provider, support coordinator or recovery coach, to see if the provider is willing to negotiate their rate to accommodate the hours,” says Cassandra.

“Or, if you know there’s a particular activity that’ll occur on a weekend or public holiday, you may need to decrease your support hours prior to the activity in order to ‘bank’ your hours to ensure you can attend.”

For those who are unable to negotiate reduced rates or utilise current support hours flexibly due to the level of support needed, Cassandra recommends submitting a change of circumstances to the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) or requesting a review of a reviewable decision.

“For both of these, it’s critical to have supporting evidence – such as occupational therapy reports, positive behaviour support practitioner reports or supporting letters from your provider,” she says.

“If you’re not funded for a support coordinator, recovery coach or social worker, you can seek assistance from an appropriate advocate to support you through the review process. Advocates work separately from – and aren’t funded by – the NDIS, so there’ll be no imposition to your plan to access this type of support. It’ll be about the capacity of the advocate if they can take you on.”

To supplement the roster of support workers, Cassandra also suggests approaching informal supports, such as family or friends, to see if they’re able to provide additional support during the holiday period.

Therapy providers take breaks too!

Of course, downtime during the holiday break doesn’t stop at support work – your therapy provider could be shutting up shop during the festive period too. And if this happens, it’s important to start planning early, so your progress isn’t affected by their absence.

“You should be having open discussions with your provider or independent support worker about what support you need over the closure period and working with them around how to achieve this,” says Cassandra.

“Keep in mind you may need to be flexible to ensure that your workers also get time off to be with their families and friends as well!”.

If you access allied health supports, consider asking your clinicians if there are any exercises, activities or programs they can create to carry you through the closure period, and ask them to show you how you can complete them with your support workers.

“If you require more health-related supports, make sure you connect with your general practitioner and community health providers to come up with a plan for your support, including any risk management plans (if necessary),” says Cassandra.

Top tips for keeping supports in place

We asked Cassandra and Emily for their top tips for keeping supports going during closure periods. Here’s what they had to say:

Cassandra’s tips

#1 Start planning as early as possible with your providers, support coordinators, or recovery coaches. Give your providers time to sort out their staffing rosters and remember, it’s good for your support workers to also have breaks and time with their family!

#2 Speak to your allied health clinicians to see if there are any activities or programs you can complete with your support workers to ensure you can still make progress towards your goals.

#3 Come up with a plan or a risk management plan of what you expect to happen if things deteriorate or escalate. This could include discussions with your providers, general practitioners, and hospital or mental health teams.

Emily’s tips

#1 Ensure you’re aware of the terms of the service agreement and schedule of supports you have in place with your support providers. Ensure there’s a shared understanding of how supports will be provided in the event of a support worker becoming unavailable.

#2 Plan ahead. Speak to your support workers and other services to ensure that you’re aware of any planned changes to your supports and any periods when your regular support workers may not be available.

#3 If you have a support coordinator, keep them in the loop with the discussions you have with providers. Reach out to them as soon as possible if it looks like your regular provider will be unavailable and you’ll need assistance to find an alternative.

#4 Check your NDIS budgets if you need to change shifts, providers or support arrangements. Ensure you can afford the changes you’re seeking and aren’t faced with the pressure of unpaid invoices after the event. If you have a support coordinator, they can assist you with this.

*Emily is not her real name.

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My Plan Manager acknowledges the objectives of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

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