Meet the woman who spent 22 months applying for the Disability Support Pension
18 July 2019 at 8:00 am
“It was an acutely frustrating and chronically demoralising process,” she says.
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.
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.