In the middle of 2020, a woman with multiple sclerosis set the precedent to include sex work or sex therapy under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
The process took four years and a trip to the Federal Court – which overruled against the NDIA (the government initiative in charge of the NDIS) and in favour of the woman to receive specialised sex services under the funding. Now, people in the disability sector - and under the scheme - have reported stigma and sometimes outright rejection when trying to include sex work in their yearly NDIS plans.
Sex, and achieving sexual gratification, is a prerogative for most adult human beings. But for those with disabilities, the achievement of climax and even the ability to masturbate on one’s own can prove difficult. For many, these services are essential for every aspect of individual wellbeing.
“It’s physical and emotional. We have good conversations and good laughs,” Stephanie, who is diagnosed with cerebral palsy, told VICE, “I guess it’s kind of like a relationship.”
In order to determine the type of funding she receives, Stephanie meets with support workers from the NDIS once a year to assess an individualised plan before it’s approved. To secure funding, goals and activities must be seen as “reasonable and necessary” : a vague set of criteria which can differ depending on the values of the individual assessors.
The plan itself is a multi-part form that aims to understand the disability, day-to-day activities, and goals. Previously, Stephanie’s pursuit to include sex work had been rejected. However, in recent assessments, she’s worked around her funding to include it, instead jotting it down as “Disability Support Work”.
“It’s the stigma,” said Stephanie, “It’s a systematic issue. People look at us and say we don’t need it but we do have disabilities, so how do we have a relationship or physical intimacy?”
But Stephanie isn’t the only one.
Samuel Hunter is the social media manager for Touching Base – an organisation that connects sex workers with people with disabilities. He is also a sex worker for disabled clientele and says in multiple instances people have reached out about their applications getting rejected.
“I just had someone ask me this on the Touching Base Twitter account a week or two ago,” Hunter told VICE. “They said that they asked their plan manager to include sexual services in their plan, and it was just a straight up ‘No, I'm not including that’”.
“And I told him that it was illegal for him to say that. The whole point of the plan is to have agency over yourself.”
“So far, none of my clients have actually got ‘accessing sex workers’ in their plans,” Hunter said.
As well as fear of rejection, Hunter says that most clients don’t want to share that kind of personal information with their support coordinator. According to Hunter, Stephanie will be one of his first clientele to do so in her next yearly meeting.
While rejection of sex work or sex therapy on individual plans is legal, Giancarlo De Vera, Senior Manager of Policy for People With Disabilities Australia (PWDA), says there has been a pattern of “unlawful blocking” from representatives from the NDIS over the last couple of years.
The NDIS is a fairly new scheme that was introduced by the Australian Government in 2013 after discussions with representatives from the disability sector. Trial periods finished in 2016, when the scheme was finally rolled out across Australia. Despite its claim that it would help people with disabilities live full and enriching lives equal to the rest of the community, according to De Vera, it's worse off.
When VICE reached out to the NDIA to respond to the claims that sex work was being denied under the funding, the agency said: “In all aspects of the Scheme, the NDIA operates in accordance with applicable legislation and judicial decisions.”
Previously, state-based disability financial support systems allowed for people to access sexual services based on their needs.
“A lot of the states and territories, particularly the ACT, made it clear that the support could be funded under the NDIS,” De Vera told VICE, “and so there’s this whole argument that support has been worse off since the introduction of the NDIS.”
In a joint statement at the end of 2019, Australia’s major Disability Organisations called for the NDIA to “develop a comprehensive sexuality policy to continue reasonable and necessary support for sexual expression through NDIS funding”.
Within the call, the organisations accused the NDIA of heightening the stigma that people with disabilities face, especially around sexuality. Specifically, the societal beliefs that clients were either asexual or hypersexual.
Though the reason for the NDIA’s rejection of claims for sex work under individual plans is vague, Hunter believes it to be an ideological issue.
Despite this, when his client Stephanie goes in for review of her funding, she plans to write down sexual services on her plan.
“The NDIS is starting to review some of the line items that sex workers often use. We’ve had to change the line item billing for her about three times in the last six months,” said Hunter, “Including it in her plan means we don’t have to worry about this anymore.”
Read more from VICE Australia.