One of the less prominent aspects of Malcolm Turnbull's federal budget is the plan to shift another 30,000 Disability Support Pension (DSP) recipients onto Newstart umemployment benefits. This move has been defended as a cost-saving measure to help fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
It follows the tightened of the eligibility criteria for DSP that occurred in 2011 under a federal Labor government. Since then, the number of DSP recipients has flatlined at around 800,000.
Australia's spending on disability payments and number of recipients are roughly average for a developed nation. Yet, politicians and the media routinely argue that it is far too easy for people to qualify for DSP — despite the fact that one-quarter of Newstart recipients are people with a diagnosed disability — and that levels of spending on the payment are unsustainable.
Pas Forgione from Anti-Poverty Network South Australia, spoke to Heather and Alicia, who are current DSP recipients and Zoe Jo, who is applying for DSP, about their experiences.
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Tell us about your experiences applying for DSP.
Heather: I applied for and was put on DSP in 2009. The whole process was relatively simple, and with referrals from specialists I was able to get my payments started within a few months of my application.
My frustration these days comes mostly from the efforts I need to make to maintain the DSP. These requirements have changed drastically over a very short period of time for me and further changes to the Centrelink system may worsen this.
Alicia: I applied for DSP in 2005. I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and had difficulty leaving my home and sleeping. To get the DSP I was told to see my doctor and get a form filled out, the doctor filled in the form but said that my illness wouldn't last for more than two years, so I was rejected.
It wasn't until two years later, after I suffered from domestic violence and was put into public housing, which made my illness worse, that I got a psychiatrist who told me that there was no way of knowing how long my illness would last and that I should be on DSP.
Zoe Jo: It's ridiculously hard just to get your hands on the forms to apply in the first place. I've been waiting for months now, after being told that the paperwork would be sent out, that I'd be scheduled another job capacity assessment.
I'm living on Newstart, being forced to hand in medical certificates every three months, so I'm exempt from fruitlessly searching for jobs that I'll never physically or mentally be able to perform.
I was told by my specialist that I'd have to find a way to prove, without the help of a doctor and following Centrelink's bureaucratic guidelines and points system, that I'm too disabled to work for more than three hours at a time whilst seated and without needing a break.
Why do you think disability pensioners are so frequently targeted by governments?
Zoe Jo: My specialist tried to explain to me that it was a move for votes from the majority. Disabled people are copping the brunt because "it has to be them", and not other groups receiving welfare because that would be less easy to swallow.
While I'm in part inclined to agree with him, I believe all people receiving welfare are being treated unfairly. Only with disability intersecting there is always an element of ableism, a form of oppression that disabled people experience. I believe that this may be because disabled people are seen as a "drain" or a "burden" on the welfare system and to society in general.
If you were shifted from DSP to Newstart, what impact would it have on your quality of life?
Heather: I can't even wrap my head around what that would mean for me. I would end up losing around $200 a fortnight. That's money for rent, money for medication, money for food, money to look after my pets.
My situation wouldn't change. I'd still be disabled, I'd still have epilepsy, my capacity to work and function would still be restricted. But because somebody wants to be a little richer I'd lose 25% of my income.
As a result of losing my Centrelink payments briefly, I became homeless a couple of years ago for a period. I was fortunate enough to have enough friends to stay with and belongings to liquidate that I survived mostly unscathed. If that were to happen now, and for an indefinite period, I don't know how I would survive.
Alicia: If I was put on Newstart, then forced to attend appointments and possibly do Work For The Dole — which would result in me having to give up my uni studies — I predict my depression and anxiety would get hard to manage.
I would be breached because I'd miss an appointment at least once due to my insomnia. I'd go back to feeling constantly being judged.
While being on DSP, I've worked part-time, gotten three diplomas and am now doing a degree. I don't feel like a failure, I know I have the support I need if I have a bad few months where my depression and anxiety make it so I can't leave my house, let alone get out of bed.
Newstart doesn't offer that support for people with mental illness.
What are some of the biggest myths about disabilities?
Heather: That young people aren't affected by disability. That a disability is something you can see on someone. That you could possibly define what a disabled person should or shouldn't look like. That apparently thousands of Australians would fake disability, just so that they could voluntarily live below the poverty-line.
Alicia: No one knows I suffer from mental illness unless I tell them. I'm seen as mostly anti-social or lazy, in reality it's a constant struggle to get out of bed in the morning, a constant struggle to get to sleep at night, and a constant struggle to socialise and relate to people.
I know I cannot put on my job applications that I suffer from mental illness and expect to get a job, there's a lot of discrimination that still goes on, even if they never tell you that you haven't gotten the job because of your mental illness.
Zoe Jo: That everyone with or without an illness will have some kind of work capacity. I literally was told by a Centrelink DSP assessor that "even a quadriplegic in a wheelchair can still wheel up to a computer and press keys with a stick from his mouth".
That illnesses just "get better" and "go away" with time, therapy and medication. The amount of times I've been given an amount of time to "sort myself out" by Centrelink is about five by now. Being disabled and chronically ill is a lifetime battle for most people.