The statewide Ability Links program is poised to close when its funding runs out on June 30, leaving the future of its 400 staff and the services they provide in doubt.
The program, which was trialled in the Hunter region in 2013 before being rolled out across the state, links people with a disability with education, employment and community-engagement opportunities and is designed to cater for those who do not qualify for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
The NSW Department of Family and Community Services told the Newcastle Herald this week that the program's state funding would end on June 30 but the NDIS would offer similar services.
An industry source labelled the situation a "disgrace" and said the program's staff had been left in the dark about the changes.
The source, who asked to remain anonymous, doubted the NDIS could replicate the program's activities.
"If they are not prepared to re-fund it, where will it go? Time is running out, and if there is no transition plan, where does that leave the tens of thousands of people the program supports?" the source said.
"This is a social crisis unfolding in silence with not a single word from our community's leaders.
"Only a very small proportion of people with disability have access to the NDIS, and the balance of those people potentially could have access to Ability Links.
"Without Ability Links, what happens to all of those people?"
A three-year evaluation by consultants Urbis said Ability Links was "ground-breaking" and delivered positive economic and social benefits.
“In 25 years of evaluating government initiatives, I have rarely come across a program that has achieved so much in such a short space of time," Urbis economic and social advisory director Alison Wallace said when releasing the report two years ago.
“People with disability, their families and carers highly value Ability Links and told us countless stories of the positive impact it has had. The evaluation clearly shows that people’s lives really are being changed."
The report said the $55 million program had been particularly successful in Aboriginal communities and more than a quarter of the people accessing Ability Links were indigenous.
A FACS spokesperson said the NSW government had been funding Ability Links "to ensure there are no short-term gaps in community linkage and inclusion activities in the early years of the NDIS", which started in July 2016.
The program's funding would end on June 30, but "Ability Links is closely aligned with all components of the NDIS Information, Linkages and Capacity Building Policy Framework", the spokesperson said.
"Through the ILC, more than $398 million in funding grants will be made available for initiatives that engage the community, strengthen the capacity of people with a disability and build inclusion across the country between 2019 and 2022.
"The National Disability Insurance Agency is in discussions regarding next steps for Ability Links."
The Ability Links program is run by the St Vincent De Paul Society in the Hunter, Central Coast and parts of Sydney and by other organisations elsewhere in NSW.
The Urbis report said Ability Links and an associated Early Links program for those aged under seven were helping 43,533 people a year across NSW, including people with a disability and their families and careers.
"It is quite frankly a disgrace, less than two weeks out from an election and now in caretaker mode, that the incumbent state government has not been clear with Ability Links NSW providers and the 400 people they employ where this program is going," the industry source said.
"The loss of this program will have an enormous impact on the community ... it really is the last port of call for so many vulnerable people who have become socially isolated, may have been refused access to the NDIS and need support to access supports in their communities."
The source said the NDIS aimed to undertake engagement work similar to that provided by Ability Links but "little to no work" had been done in this area because its workforce had been "under the pump" organising plans for 450,000 NDIS participants.
The four-year, $398 million ILC funding is spread across the nation, offering grants to for-profit and non-profit service providers.