Advocacy groups for people with disability have submitted their calls to a Senate Committee for sweeping reforms to the system of the Disability Support Pension (DSP).
This week the Senate Committee of Community Affairs References heard from several organisations about the distress which the process of applying for the DSP, the low rate of the payment and inadequate employment support is causing people with disability.
The organisations included Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, Children and Young People with Disability Australia, Women With Disability Australia, Mental Health Australia, Inclusion Australia, People with Disability Australia and Economic Justice Australia.
They called for changes to the DSP rate, the process to claim it and the DSP’s link to employment services.
It’s medically based criteria also came under criticism as they require a person’s disability to be “fully diagnosed, treated and stabilised”, making many people with fluctuating disabilities and those with newly-acquired disabilities ineligible, while taking the right to refuse treatments away from people who need the DSP.
The DSP medical criteria are also at odds with the social model used to distribute National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) funding.
Inclusion Australia Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Catherine McAlpine outlined how even if people with intellectual disability could navigate the application process - which was “emotionally stressful” and too “complex”- and meet the medical criteria, the rate of payment forced people to live below the poverty line.
“DSP and other related systems have an enormous effect on people’s lives,” she told the committee.
“People have certainly told us that DSP doesn’t cover the basics like a house and food on the table, let alone the additional expenses due to disability.”
Women with Disability Australia representatives added that the low rate of the DSP was forcing people to stay in abusive relationships for financial stability.
According to the advocates, a major issue alongside the rate of DSP is the claims process and the use of the impairment tables, which are currently under separate review by the Department of Social Services due to end early next year.
The tables are used to determine whether a person’s disability medically qualifies them for the DSP and operate on a points system - a person with 20 points or more on one table is eligible.
To be assessed for points on each table requires evidence provided by a different health specialist and people applying for DSP have to pay for their own appointments with the specialists, which advocacy organisations say is a prohibitive cost.
A person with 20 points or more across the tables may also qualify for DSP but they have to first complete 18 months of a Program of Support, intended to encourage people to engage in work.
Many of the advocacy organisations’ representatives spoke to the Senate Committee about removing the Program of Support because it does not provide the right support for sustainable employment, does not take into account other barriers to suitable employment like discrimination, and people with disability who complete the program don’t always receive the DSP after, causing more distress.
Since 2012, when the impairment tables were introduced, the number of people receiving the DSP has dropped by almost 20 percent, and the advocacy groups say this is because people are being forced onto the lower JobSeeker payment when they are deemed to have a partial capacity to work.
Australian Federation of Disability Organisations National Manager of Systemic Advocacy, Insight and Research Patrick McGee says the DSP is too closely linked to unemployment payments despite people with disability often facing fewer employment prospects.
“Unfortunately I think Government sees the Disability Support Pension as yet another welfare payment and I think it’s important that we de-couple that,” he says.
“What we know about the process of getting a job for people with disability is that there’s very little jobs available that are sustainable - that are inclusive of the nature of the impairments that they face.
“There’s very little mechanism to get people into employment and to keep them there and then there’s very little scope of the mechanism to get people off the DSP and into secure employment.”
For the one million Australians living with psychosocial disabilities, Mental Health Australia CEO Dr Leanne Beagley says the process to receive DSP is overwhelming and almost impossible to navigate, while the system is not recovery-oriented as is considered best practice for mental health.
She says the DSP features disincentives for people to return to work even if they are able because working could see them lose income support entirely and need to go through the application process again if they need support in the future.
Dr Beagley is calling for an increase in the maximum number of hours people on the DSP can work from 30 to 38 per week and a return of treating doctor reports as evidence of disability - which were previously part of the DSP system and are billable to Medicare.
Cancer Council Australia and Oncology Social Work Australia and New Zealand also told the Senate Committee about the lack of access to the DSP for people with cancer and cancer survivors, who are at a 37 percent higher risk of becoming unemployed than people who haven’t had cancer.
The Senate Committee’s report is expected to be released by the end of November this year.