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Meet the woman who spent 22 months applying for the Disability Support Pension


Thursday, 18th July 2019 at 8:00 am
Luke Michael
When Brianna Bell turned up at Centrelink with her wheelchair, assistance dog and carer, staff wondered how it was possible she was not yet receiving any payments.


Thursday, 18th July 2019
at 8:00 am
Luke Michael


11 Comments


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Meet the woman who spent 22 months applying for the Disability Support Pension
Thursday, 18th July 2019 at 8:00 am

When Brianna Bell turned up at Centrelink with her wheelchair, assistance dog and carer, staff wondered how it was possible she was not yet receiving any payments.

The 23-year-old had been trying to get on the Disability Support Pension since late 2015, but it took her 22 months before she was even able to complete an application.  

While Centrelink staff seemed sympathetic, they offered no help navigating the complex system, which required her to spend thousands of dollars in medical appointments and fill out countless forms.

During these months Bell felt severely stressed, both by how long it took to get her application together and by the unexpected financial and personal pressure she was placing on her parents as a young person with frequent medical bills.

“It was an acutely frustrating and chronically demoralising process that made me feel like a burden and an inconvenience at every stage,” Bell told Pro Bono News. 

She finally lodged her application in September 2017, and after more months spent waiting, attending phone interviews and in-person assessments, she was eventually approved for the payment.

Bell – who has a genetic disorder called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome – was three years into a law degree when she began the arduous DSP application process.

“If this is what applying for the DSP looks like for someone who graduated with a Bachelor of Laws (hons) in 2018 and had parents who could afford to pay for many of those critical medical appointments, what does it look like for the less privileged in our society?” she said.

Brianna and Kirby

Brianna and Kirby.

Disability groups have long been concerned by the complex DSP processes, which they warn are causing people to end up on the lower Newstart payment and fall into poverty.

A single person on Newstart receives $550 a fortnight compared with $916 a fortnight for a single person on the DSP. 

Tougher eligibility requirements introduced by the Gillard government in 2012 has led to a sharp decline in people accessing the DSP, with new DSP participants falling from a peak of almost 89,000 in 2009-10 to around 32,000 in 2016-17.

It was also disclosed during Senate estimates this year that of the 104,000 DSP claims made in 2017-18, about 73,000 were unsuccessful – a rejection rate of 70 per cent.

The largest non-medical reason given for rejection is failure to supply the correct information.

New research suggests that reading and writing assistance would increase the probability of getting the DSP by 20 per cent.

People with Disability Australia (PWDA) director of policy and advocacy Romola Hollywood told Pro Bono News the DSP needed to be more accessible.

“Here at PWDA, we know our advocates spend a considerable amount of time supporting people with disability who need essential income support like the DSP, through the application process, as well as with any reviews,” Hollywood said.

“Our members tell us this is an area of significant concern to them.”

The government has introduced new assessment tables as part of its attempt to restrain growth in the DSP.

This document sets out 15 categories of function – lower limb function, spinal function, mental health function etc ­– with a person needing to prove a “severe functional impact” in one category to qualify.

It means people recording a “moderate functional impact” in a number of categories would not be eligible.

Bell said this method completely failed to consider that for multi-systemic conditions like hers, you can be equally unable to work as a result of 10 different mild to moderate functional impairments as you would be by a single severe one.

“The debilitating impact of our condition is not reduced by the fact that they do not fit neatly into a single category that the government has stipulated,” she said.

She added it was hard to see the complexity of the DSP application process as anything other than a deliberate strategy to reduce government costs.

“Pretending this complexity is an unintentional and unnoticed side-effect of rigorous and reasonable systems will only continue this harm to disabled Australians,” she said.

PWDA believe the government needs to develop a more holistic and person-centred approach to the DSP and make the eligibility requirements fairer.

Hollywood said this could be achieved through a Senate inquiry.

“We believe that it’s time to set up a Senate inquiry into the DSP, that looks at the whole process and that has terms of reference designed by people with disability,” she said.

Pro Bono News has approached Social Services Minister Anne Ruston for comment.


Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.


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11 Comments

  • Avatar Kevin Boyce says:

    As a person with a ABI and Blindness I am not amazed at the trouble some have when applying for a DSP but a bigger issue is the NDIS, prior to getting a plan I had a Home First / Support and Choice from the Victorian Government, it meet my needs and wants and enabled me to return to study and the community with the help of my Guide Dog but know under the NDIS and reviews it the NDIS still falls a long way short, why when the old system was working so well was it changed, maybe people on a support grant before the NDIS should have stayed on the old system and any new clients be introduced to the new!!

  • Avatar Michael says:

    Several years ago, my then partner received DSP. My income increased when I took up a new job and this was high enough that her DSP was cancelled. A couple of years after that, we separated and she was rejected for the DSP. She was on NewStart for nearly two years before an appeal to the AAT got her back on there. The sad things was that Centrelink deemed her too ill to receive proper job search assistance (her NewStart didn’t even cover rent let alone food, medial bills, transport etc) but not ill enough to get the DSP – despite the fact that she met all the relevant criteria for the DSP as later demonstrated by the AAT. After being told by one Job Capacity Assessor during a DSP assessment that she hadn’t tried hard enough to kill herself during an earlier psychotic episode, she subsequently tried even harder but thankfully failed. Australia has had two major reviews undertaken by Patrick McClure (both commissioned by a Coalition govt) in 2000 and again in 2014 that both made recommendations about the DSP and other elements of the welfare system that have been largely ignored. We have had bucket loads of other reports about these matters. I cannot abide people being denied things that at are their legal right and provide critical support but the situation of people being parked on NewStart for years at a time is made even more reprehensible by the fact that NewStart is stupidly low…one of the few things that the Business Council of Australia and just about every social service group agree on is that the low rate is bad for the economy and bad for the community. As a country, we should be better than this.

  • Avatar Maggi says:

    I am disgusted with Centrelink full stop. I have an incurable cancer since 2015 when finally diagnosed correctly. I went into local Centrelink and asked about support…was told to apply for New Start and then medical exemption. My condition has not changed and in fact I have had conditions added to my medical resume since then. Centrelink are inconsistent with their information. You waste a lot of time trying to get through…they admit they cannot answer all the callers…Had 6 hangups last Monday followed by an hour on hold. First medical exemption was rejected “because your dr left a blank box” ! The so called Blank box was to predict when I would be back at work – I went back to GP (Yes Medicare your budget is blowing out because of Centrelink) he informed me that C’Link has lost it…and that he has chronically ill patients having problems dealing with C’Link.
    Then I submitted again and that reply was that my illness in not temporary so they are keeping me on New Start and sending me off to their employment support crap place.
    Yes my illness is permanent….but the loggerheads somehow think that I can work….how can an admin officer who is trained in non medical conditions make that decision….
    They can’t and its about time the AMA stepped up and brought Centrelink/Govt to account. We pay taxes….and we pay their wages..they don’t own the cheque book to pay people…my tax paid over 50 years has been spent on submarines/donations to Indonesia/replacements for Air Force new planes/Roads that I will never drive on… and yet they are getting away with it. Not on!

  • Avatar gina lebrasse says:

    I fully agree with you Bell that the people who use the service should be involved and where is the consumer participation in this department. My understanding is that you have to comply by the Partnering with consumers standard 2 and this was set up by the government, therefore they should lead by example and avoid doing things to people.

  • Avatar Angela Longworth says:

    Nothing to do with disability but everything to do with CentreLink! Ive recently been back to my Federal member after having my aged pension stopped yet again. About 5 yrs ago I survived the Human Services Tribunal for supposedly not reporting income. I had every reporting fax less one so they were fair & wiped my FAKE debt. More recently I did a minimum of casual work & reported all. I also worked on Election day too. After that I wasnt working so promptly informed the local office. Almost immediately after this my pension stopped. Thinking it was their IT glitch I waited & waited. Eventually after 60 mins on the phone their operative said “You havent reported” I wanted to say the Hell I havent but when I mildly grumbled he was threatening ,saying if you say anything more I’ll put you back on reporting so you wont get your back payment promptly. Got my money 2 days later but I told local MP Ive had enough of their poor performance & attitude. Many employees are just jealous & nasty when you report in terms of a graduates pay scale!

  • Avatar FAYE Robins says:

    My friend was asked when her son would get better. She replied wow that great now they have found a cure for Downs syndrome, please give the Drs details.

  • Avatar Peter Simpson says:

    The reason Labor put in the rules is because under Howard a lot who would be on Newstart were shifted onto DSP to show lower un-employment figures. Has been left with those rules to now keep people off DSP on the lower Newstart. Consider for the past 20 years only 5 have not been under Liberal

  • Avatar Peter Simpson says:

    Luke would be good to know what EDS was

  • Avatar Lyn says:

    Whilst not someone who is on DSP (although permanently a wheelie), I am absolutely appalled at the number of governments organisations, (supposedly for the management/benefit of the disabled) which are run by non-disabled people who have no clue as to what is required. NDIS is a classic example – non-disabled “counselors” telling life-long people with disabilities what they need and how to live.

  • Avatar FB says:

    I am NOT defending the complexities of the DSP application and approval processes as I will need to apply for a DSP soon and am dreading it, however, you do need to get your facts straight before you publish articles. In relation to the Impairment Tables used for DSP assessments the article above states that:
    “This document sets out 15 categories of function – lower limb function, spinal function, mental health function etc ­– with a person needing to prove a “severe functional impact” in one category to qualify. It means people recording a “moderate functional impact” in a number of categories would not be eligible.”

    The article is totally wrong in these statements and the first criterion which must be met to qualify for DSP is “20 or more points from one or more of the tables”. The bit about severe functional impact in the article is only partly correct – an impairment is considered severe if it scores 20 or more points on ONE of the tables – this is detailed in the Social Security Act – see Section 94(3)b).

    It’s also quite clearly stated on the Centrelink website that a person does not have to have 20 points from a SINGLE table to qualify for DSP but that they must get a minimum of 20 points across ALL of the tables as the first “qualifying rule”.
    https://www.humanservices.gov.au/individuals/services/centrelink/disability-support-pension/how-we-assess-your-claim/impairment-rating

    There are extensive guidelines to the use of the tables, and one of them is that “The number of conditions does not always correspond to the number of impairments. A single medical condition may result in multiple functional impairments which can be assigned ratings from more than one Table. Note: Where a single medical condition causes multiple impairments, these impairments should be assessed on all relevant Tables.”
    https://guides.dss.gov.au/guide-social-security-law/3/6/3/05

    Thus you have also done a disservice to young Brianna where you have written that “Bell said this method completely failed to consider that for multi-systemic conditions like hers, you can be equally unable to work as a result of 10 different mild to moderate functional impairments as you would be by a single severe one.” She might have been working her way through a law degree, but one doesn’t need a law degree to find the relevant DSP qualification information online. Her personal and academic credibility has been undermined by your assertion that she has made a statement which is an incorrect interpretation of the requirements – and we, as readers, have no way of knowing if she did actually make such a statement.

    It’s these sorts of mis-representations in online and print articles which cause confusion for people who are trying to navigate their way through the Centrelink/Social Security mazes. Your site has a certain amount of credibility and people will believe what you publish. You have journalistic, moral, and ethical responsibilities to ensure that a sense of “outrage” does not cloud the facts, and make sure that what you put online is accurate.

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