A complex and "humiliating" application process is making it overly difficult for people to access the Disability Support Pension, forcing them into poverty and mutual obligations requirements that inflict psychological harm, federal politicians have heard.
A Senate committee looking into the purpose, intent and adequacy of the DSP on Monday heard a range of longstanding concerns from people with disability and advocacy groups that the system is failing those who need it the most.
Speakers said people who should be eligible for the DSP are often shunted onto much lower payments with job-seeking requirements, applicants have to “jump through hoops” to get support, the process does not "understand" certain conditions, and eligibility requirements are too bureaucratic and focused on the medical model of disability.
Similar concerns have been raised about the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
The committee also heard calls for the scrapping of “programs of support” - such as work preparation plans - and for a review of the “impairment tables” used by the government to assess the severity of someone’s disability or illness.
Kath Sutherland, who broke her neck in a fall in 2016, told the hearing she was placed onto the Newstart payment, now called JobSeeker, while living with a neck brace and learning to speak and eat again.
“A neurosurgeon advised me that they don't normally see my injury in someone who's still breathing or not already a quadriplegic,” she said.
The $660-per-fortnight Newstart payment - below the poverty line - was lower than her $800-per-fortnight rent. She survived the “gruelling and lengthy process” of applying for the DSP by emptying her superannuation.
Ms Sutherland said her job network provider regularly made mutual obligation appointments she could not attend.
“I was yelled at and threatened to have my payment cancelled. I was complying. I was extremely depressed and under pressure in every area of my life from an injury and illness that permeates every part of my life,” she said.
By 2017, after another surgery and a rejected application, she said she wished she “had died in the initial accident”.
Ms Sutherland was granted DSP access in 2018 and says life now remains stressful.
“I wonder if anyone who thinks that the current rate of support payments [is enough] has ever gotten their furniture from the side of the road? Living in poverty is a constant struggle,” she said.
“I am grateful to be alive, but surviving instead of thriving is not a dignified life.”
'Falls woefully short'
The DSP provides up to $868.30 per fortnight per individual with “a permanent physical, intellectual or psychiatric impairment” that prevents them from working more than 15 hours each week.
The recipient’s condition must also be “fully diagnosed, treated and stabilised”.
The rate of the DSP was not lifted at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last year, unlike other government payments.
As of 2018, just over 750,000 Australians received the DSP.
People with Disability Australia senior policy manager Giancarlo de Vera said the DSP and the application process in its current form “falls woefully short by any measure”.
“It leaves [people with disability] enduring degrees of poverty, exposes us to dangerous jobs and mutual obligations, and inflicts further discrimination,” he told the hearing.
“It humiliates us, it treats us as one-dimensional, and forces us to constantly perform disability in ways that satisfy prejudice and narrow-minded ideas of what disability is.”
Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers said the DSP and Australia's other income support payments “do not reflect or complement the range of circumstances of people who have an illness or disability”.
She called for a new payment to be set up to “bridge the gap” between JobSeeker and the DSP.
“This payment would ensure that people on JobSeeker who cannot work on the short- to medium-term basis because of their illness or disability are not forced to participate in punitive compliance regimes and can actually focus on getting well again if that's a possibility,” she told the hearing.
“It will also better suit the needs of people who are gathering supportive evidence to make a claim for the DSP or while waiting to have one assessed, by not forcing them to live so far below the poverty line, which we know JobSeeker does.”
In a written submission to the Senate committee, the Department of Social Services said the DSP eligibility criteria seek to “encourage and support people to re-enter and remain in the workforce where they are able, complemented by a range of employment services and programs”.
The “DSP is one part of a broader system designed to support people with disability, which includes a range of supplementary payments and supports such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, services and concessions, housing, child care, health subsidies and assistance, Disability Employment Services and associated programs”, it wrote.
DSP expenditure over 2020-21 was forecast at $18.48 billion, or around 12 per cent of social security spending, according to the DSS submission.