Getting the disability pension is much harder (and more ridiculous) than you think

20 May 2024

We like to think Australia has a semi-functional welfare system, which most people assume includes that those with disability are supported if they can't work. But it's so much harder than people think, with Kafkaesque twists and turns even the strongest of us are barely able to navigate.

Another day, another lot of abelism and misconceptions about disability on social media. People rightfully pointing out that the rate of Job Seeker allowance continues to fall in real terms, and the usual know it alls with their "just get a job" rhetoric. 

Hang on though, you can't be that disabled or you'd be on the disability support pension (DSP), right? So just get a job!

(This thread was adjacent to another conversation about how the jobs suggested as the answer for people with disability are always low paying, marginalised roles like fruit picking and box packing, never manager or policy advisor, which is an excellent point but I only have the spoons to for one issue today). 

There will always be those irritating people who have the answer for everything, and the answer is your personal failures. (It's amazing how it's so often the people who think government is inherently incompetent and useless who think all government policies and programs are targeted, efficient and fit for purpose, and all failings come down to the individual). But there are an awful lot of well meaning people out there who have absolutely no idea how hard it is to get the disability support pension.

I will give light blue credit here; in this and subsequent tweets they admitted they'd been wrong, and wanted to find out more about how difficult it actually is to access DSP. 

In order to apply for DSP, you need to meet stringent conditions. You need to prove you have a  “a permanent physical, intellectual or psychiatric impairment” that prevents you from working more than 15 hours each week; and that your condition is “fully diagnosed, treated and stabilised”.

That might sound reasonable on the face of it, but if you dig in a little, the problems become apparent. First, you need to navigate the application process, which is time consuming, to Centrelink standards, and get extensive medical documentation for your condition, which can be either expensive or almost impossible; many people have trouble just getting an appointment at their GP, let alone to see specialists, such as occupational therapists and psychiatrists, which Centrelink deems necessary to make a proper assessment of a person's ability to work. The application forms themselves are daunting for people with cognitive impairments and executive functioning issues. Even after you submit your application, Centrelink might still submit you to its own assessments with their designated assessor, SonicHealthPlus - a multinational, for profit corporation (this post is turning into an episode of Last Week Tonight - these horses can get it). 

No matter what your condition or diagnoses, it assumes you can do any work for 15 hours a week (and can find an employer who's happy to take you on for 15 hours a week and make any accomodations you need). No matter how unlikely, DSP application rules assume that somewhere out there, these fairytale employers exist, that even if you've been a warehouse worker for 28 years before you suffered a spinal injury, and you now use a wheelchair full time, that even though you have limited computer literacy, well you can sit up can't you? It's theorectically possible you could get a desk job.

As for the "fully treated and stabilised" bit,  for years and years there's been media coverage of people with terminal cancer denied the disability support pension because their condition wasn't stabilised - they were likely to get sicker - and wasn't likely to last longer than two years because they'd probably be dead by then. They've eased up on this a bit in theory - now you only need to be "reasonably" stabilised - but who knows how that's working for the people actually affected.

59% of DSP applications are rejected. The head of Services Australia has denied this is unfair: “All claims for payments are assessed fairly under social security legislation, based on the information provided at the time of application."

But no one is saying the assessment of DSP applications is unfair because some applicants are treated by different criteria to others; the rules are unfair - as in unjust, unreasonable, unconscionable - for everyone. The laws set down by successive federal governments have deliberately made it as difficult as possible to access the disability support pension. As I've said before, If it's a problem with the legislation, the legislation needs to change. (Just don't hold your breath waiting for Labor to fix things).

When applying for DSP goes from difficult to Kafkaesque

Even if you are approved as a DSP recipient, there's another hurdle one has to face; a requirment so bizarre and ridiculous I can't see any logical justification for it at all. 

Unless you have a severe disability that falls under a single category, before receiving the DSP rate of payment Centrelink will require you to spend 18 months receiving the much lower rate of Job Seeker allowance whilst participating in a program of support. This will generally involve you attending regular appointments with a desginated Disability Employment Services provider - usually for profit agencies who've won a government contract. You'll meet with a consultant who need have no expertise or education in disability and no regard for confidentiality. At best, said consultant will be of little more help than the Twitter know it alls, suggesting people who use wheelchairs apply for jobs they cannot physically do, like stacking shelves. The worst case scenarios can be horrifying, with people who need more help than any employment consultant can provide and the consultant having no idea what to do, other than to keep to their tick-the-boxes routine. The Disability Royal Commission found Disability Employment Services (DES) providers are largely useless, but there has been no attempt to overhall things since then.

But let's unpack the idea behind the whole thing. If you have to leave your job because your disbilities prevent you from working - a job you found all by yourself and wanted to do - then before you can receive the disability pension, you have to spend 18 months regularly attending a DES office to receive useless and possibly dangerous "support" to find a job, something you'd already successfully accomplished, whilst receiving a much lower rate of income supplement. Your records, including medical records, must be given to the DES provider and will be handled with no regard for confidentiality. And if you miss a DES appointment due to disability, your payments could stop altogether. 

This isn't saving the government (taxpayers) any money; the money they pay the DES provider for the pointless "service" they provide will far exceed the difference between Job Seeker payments and the DSP. 

But that is the current policy. If you are unable to do your job, you must spend 18 pointless months being told how to find another job you won't be able to do before you are formally admitted to the rarefied ranks of DSP recipients. 

This is the scenario I'm facing now.

I love my job, I love the work I do. I wish I was able to do more with it; to finish my masters, work full time, author research papers, speak at conferences, work overseas for a year or two. But in recent months I've been increasingly unwell, to the point where I'm worrying if I can continue working at all. 

I'm a university educated professional with years of experience, and am facing being unable to work in a job which, whilst it requires empathy, research, concentration and strategies to alleviate vicarious trauma, requires little more physical effort than sitting upright, and remembering to brush my hair and put on a top that's not covered in tea stains or anarchist slogans before Zoom presentations.

(I'm not going into details. Here's something I wrote when this first hit a few years ago, although there's other things wrong with me1 as well. Yes, I've tried that remedy you were going to suggest; no, it didn't work).

It was the ALP who introduced these Byzantine rules for DSP, so I'm not expecting them to do anything about fixing it. But so many people have no idea how difficult it is for disabled people to receive income support, and naively assume the systems in place are efficient and work well, that anyone who needs support can and will get it, when that's so far from the truth. 

1. Generally in my personal writing, and always in my work, I'm guided by the social model of disability. But when speaking of myself, I get annoyed and frustrated with my conditions; no amount of societal acceptance will make me feel better when I'm too sore and nauseated to get off the couch, or crying out in pain from my back and hips when I do. This post reflects my personal views and not those of my employer, nor the work I do for them.

1 comment:

  1. It's alarming how the welfare system can be so baffling and inaccessible for those who need it most. As we discuss the challenges, let's not forget to explore solutions. Have you heard of any successful initiatives or services aimed at assisting individuals with disabilities in finding employment? Let's unite to break down barriers and create a more supportive environment for everyone


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