Intellectual Disability Behaviour Support Program

UNSW has a reputation for professional excellence in disability research.

The NSW Department of Family and Community Services and its agency for Ageing, Disability and Home Care (ADHC) have acknowledged our dedication to research in this area, funding the Intellectual Disability Behaviour Support (IDBS) program and appointing a Chair, IDBS in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW

Program objectives

The Intellectual Disability Behaviour Support (IDBS) program works to address the research-to-policy-and-practice nexus to improve support for people with cognitive disability and complex support needs. The term 'cognitive disability' includes many labels - including intellectual disability, borderline intellectual disability, acquired brain injury and autism. Generally, having a cognitive disability means that a person will have difficulty with things such as self-management, decision making and communication and experience some level of social exclusion. 

The program achieves this through:

  • Consulting with key stakeholders and developing collaborative relationships with academic, government and sector agencies both nationally and internationally;
  • Leading the development and delivery of educational programs for frontline and managerial staff to support people with cognitive disability who have complex support needs and behaviours of concern;
  • Leading a research program to inform support practices for those with cognitive disability and complex support needs across the disability and community sectors;
  • Contributing to policy and practice approaches to cognitive disability support in alignment with international best practice;
  • Focusing on areas where there is a specific need to address knowledge deficits within the Australian and international context; and
  • Translating knowledge emerging from the IDBS program to ensure the work is informed by, and communicated to, a broad range of stakeholders.

What are Complex Support Needs?

In relation to human beings’ lives and support needs, ‘complexity’ is a product of individual life situations and the lack of capacity of support structures to respond appropriately over time. Individuals with complex support needs face a number of inter-related challenges that may include many or all of the following: cognitive disability; health conditions; mental health issues; behaviours that are a risk to self or others; substance misuse; insecure or inadequate housing; cultural, circumstantial or intergenerational disadvantage; family and domestic violence and contact with the criminal justice system. Individuals with complex support needs are often marginalised and disadvantaged within the service system and in the community.

Complex support needs graphic

Click on image to view full graphic.

Contributing to national reform

This is a vital time in disability services as they transition from government to non-government sectors as part of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). State and Federal reforms are an opportunity for real and lasting change in the lives of people with disabilities who have complex support needs.

The Chair and IDBS program will critically contribute to these reforms by engaging in high level consultations, leading in the development and delivery of education and training, and working with academic, government and sector agencies in Australia and worldwide to ensure policy and practice are aligned with international best practice.

Working in partnership

As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Australian Government is working closely with the NSW Government to improve mainstream policies, programs, services and infrastructure so that people with disabilities participate as full and equal citizens in Australian society. The introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme is part of a national framework for major reform.

The NSW Government’s Stronger Together 2006-2016 strategy aims to provide flexible and innovative long-term practical solutions for people with disabilities so that they have full choice, control and direction over the care and support they need to participate in the economic and social life of their community.

Supporting the needs of the individual


One of the challenges in achieving these aims involves working with people with cognitive disabilities who have complex support needs to take more control over their lives. These support needs may relate to behaviours that may pose a risk to quality of life or personal safety of the individual or others (known as challenging behaviour), which require the assistance of integrated services over a long period of time, including:

  • mental health issues
  • substance misuse
  • family and domestic violence
  • intergenerational disadvantage
  • contact with the criminal justice system

Moving from responding to symptoms and risks to finding ways to support long-term change requires innovative ways of working to achieve the ultimate goal of improving people’s lives.

The IDBS program at UNSW is working in close partnership with ADHC to ensure that transition in support provision for people with complex support needs is a smooth one.

View related newsContact IDBS program
IDBS Roadmap to the Future
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