July 2005

Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is the peak organisation for women with all types of disabilities in Australia. It is a not-for-profit organisation constituted and driven by women with disabilities. Please find below a brief Update Report from WWDA for the month of July 2005. If you have any questions, or would like more information on anything in this report, please email Carolyn or Angela at: wwda@wwda.org.au


WWDA/AFDO seeks feedback on Medicare Awareness

WWDA/AFDO Represents the Consumer Voice with Health Insurance Commission

Government Response to WWDA enquiry on the need for an Independent Telecommunications Disability Equipment Programme

WWDA participates in ACIF conference on a Single Consumer Code

WWDA initiates enquiry into a Budget Pay System for Telephone Services

Women’s Leadership and Development Programme Funding Application

“What Women Want” Forum

Telecommunications Grant Success

WWDA/AFDO seeks feedback on Medicare Awareness

The Health Insurance Commission (HIC) has a well established tradition of maintaining good communication with its key stakeholders. It does this through its Stakeholder Advisory Committee which is supported by a Doctors’ Communication Group, a Pharmacists’ Communications Group and Consumer Communication Group (CCG). The CCG has a membership which includes a broad spectrum of relevant organisations – high users of the health system such as those with chronic illness and those with disabilities, carers; those from rural areas, those from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse backgrounds, seniors, young people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, as well as mainstream or general consumers. The Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO) representative is WWDA Secretary, Sue Salthouse.

At the last meeting of the CCG, the question of dissemination of information about HIC policies and activities was discussed. The HIC has a wide range of avenues for getting information out into the community. However, Sue felt that the disability community was not well informed about the HIC. This oversight means that people with disabilities may not know about changes to the Medicare Safety Net and the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme Safety Net.

As a result, a short set of questions has been disseminated via the AFDO membership and on wwda-discuss, giving information about both Safety Nets, and seeking feedback on the level of awareness of HIC activities. If you missed the first opportunity contact Sue on sudata@optusnet.com.au to get the information and the feedback questions.

WWDA/AFDO Represents the Consumer Voice with Health Insurance Commission

The Health Insurance Commission (HIC) has a strong commitment to customer service, and couples this with a strong commitment to recognition of empowering staff to deliver that quality service. It is a leading government agency in affiliating with the Customer Service Institute of Australia (CSIA). Recent Government policy changes have meant that it is to have a name change to Medicare Australia, will become a part of the Department of Human Services and will add some new services to its current portfolio of Medicare, Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme, Australian Organ Donor Register and the Australian Child Immunisation Registry.

In view of this, it held the inaugural Great Service Conference at Parramatta in Sydney on 20-21 July 2005. The Conference was attended by about 50 HIC staff ranging from Customer Service Officers in Medicare Shopfronts to the Managing Director. There were 4 Guest Speakers – from Westpac, Brisbane Air Train, the CSIA and AFDO.

Sue Salthouse, representing HIC Consumers, gave a short presentation in which she addressed the importance of early consultation with consumers when policies and programs are being developed. She focussed on the need to get consumer advice on the best ways of disseminating information, and the use of Advisory Groups for reaching a wide range of stakeholders. Her talk highlighted the characteristics of a consumer advisory group and examined ways in which a host organisation can develop and maintain a productive relationship with such a group. For an e-copy of the presentation contact the WWDA office or Sue.

Government Response to WWDA enquiry on the need for an Independent Telecommunications Disability Equipment Programme

In June, the WWDA Telecommunications Group wrote to Senator the Hon Helen Coonan, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, outlining its concerns about the need for an independent Disability Equipment Program (DEP) for the provision of assistive equipment for people with disabilities. The current program is maintained by Telstra, and WWDA has previously noted that subscribers with disabilities who are not using Telstra as their primary service provider have had difficulties obtaining access to the DEP. There are further concerns about what mechanisms will be put in place to ensure the DEP is maintained when Telstra is fully privatised. We have received the following reply from Matthew Stafford, an Advisor to the Minister.

2 August 2005
Ms Sue Salthouse

Dear Ms Salthouse
Telecommunications equipment program for people with disabilities

Thank you for your letter of 20 June 2005 to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator the Hon Helen Coonan, concerning telecommunications disability equipment provision for people with disabilities. The Minister has asked me to respond on her behalf.

The Government is aware of the importance of ensuring that people with disabilities have equitable access to telecommunications services in the competitive telecommunications environment. In relation to your concerns about the full privatisation of Telstra, the legislated safeguards which ensure access to telecommunications for people with disabilities will continue regardless of the ownership structure of Telstra, including the requirements under the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999 and the Disability Discrimination At 1992 (DDA).

The Government does not support an expansion of the existing legal and financial requirements which are placed on the telecommunications industry in this regard. Placing additional imposts on service providers that do not supply telecommunications equipment as part of their business activities would go beyond the requirements of the DDA and would treat telecommunications companies differently from other industry sectors. Given the large number of service providers that are small and medium sized businesses, placing additional financial and regulatory burdens on the sector is likely to adversely affect competition and industry development.

The supply of telecommunications equipment for people with disabilities was considered as part of the Telecommunications Service Inquiry (TSI). The TSI Report found that further obligations need not be set through telecommunications legislation because the DDA already provides appropriate avenues for people with disabilities to pursue their concerns in relation to equipment provision. The inquiry noted that if a consumer feels that they are not receiving adequate service from their telecommunications provider, then there are processes of redress available through advocacy groups and the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.

With respect to your proposal for further discussions to be held between consumers, regulators, industry and government agencies, I note that the Australian Communications Industry Forum agreed in 2004 to organise such a seminar but considered it prude t to wait until after the work of its Customer Equipment and Cable Reference Panel Working Committee 19 has been completed.

The Government will continue to monitor the Disability Equipment Program provided by the Universal Service Provider and consider any views presented on these issues.

Thank you for bringing WWDA’s views on this matter to the Minister’s attention.
Yours sincerely

WWDA sent copies of its original letter to a number of Coalition and Opposition politicians, and received acknowledgement from Senator Kaye Patterson and Bob McMullan MP.

WWDA participates in ACIF conference on a Single Consumer Code

The Australian Communications Industry Forum is the organisation which develops the Codes and Guidelines through which the Industry self regulates. Its relationship with consumers is guided by the Disability Advisory Body (DAB) on which a number of peak disability organisations, including WWDA, are represented and a Consumer Council on which a number of generalist consumer organisations are represented. There are a number of Codes which refer directly to interactions with consumers, e.g. the Prices, Terms and Conditions of sales, and Consumer Contracts.

Currently under discussion is the advisability of having an over-arching Single Consumer Code (SCC), which would mean that all Codes developed would have undergone scrutiny of a consumer perspective.

WWDA has given written feedback on the Code. In addition, Margaret Cooper (member of the WWDA Telecommunications Group) attended a forum held in Melbourne to discuss the pros and cons of the SCC.

The Forum was held at the offices of the Australian Consumer and Media Authority (formed from the July 1st amalgamation of the Australian Broadcasting Authority and the Australian Communications Authority). A small number of advocacy groups were represented (e.g. National Women’s Council, Council of Self-Help Groups, Country Women’s Association) joining representatives from a number of service providers, ACIF and ACMA. There is an inevitable tension which arises from the needs of providers to satisfy consumer needs and fairness whilst simultaneously operating in a competitive environment with obligations to maximise shareholder profits.

All forms of feedback are currently under consideration by the Working Committee concerned with drawing up the Code.

Discussion on Introduction of a Budget Pay System for Telecommunications Services

Managing the payment of bills can be an ever-present worry for people on low income, and there are many systems in place with councils and the providers of utilities such as water and power which enable people to make regular payments in an organised way.

Margaret Cooper, member of the WWDA Telecommunications Group and our representative on the Telstra Disability Forum, has noted that although Telstra has a number of initiatives in place through its ‘Access for Everyone’ package, there is nothing comparable to the Budget Pay Systems outlined above.

Essential advantages of a Budget Pay System are that they can be used by people who do not have credit cards; may operate on minimal credit levels in their banks accounts so that ‘Direct Debit’ is a risky option; do not own a cheque account with a bank; are not linked to Centrelink so CentrePay is not a possibility; and may not have access to the internet so that BPay is not an option. Under a Budget Pay system, the customer is issued with a card and is able to make regular payments at a local Shop Front. (In the case of utilities this is done at a post office. In the system WWDA proposes it could be that the location would be a Telstra Office.) Under a Budget Pay System, provided payments are made regularly, customers are not served with a letter of demand for payment, which may occur in the situation of a bank account being inadvertently overdrawn when a Direct Debit is applied. WWDA will initiate discussions with Telstra in the first instance, and will later talk with other carriers.

Women’s Leadership and Development Programme

Through the Office for Women, the Department of Family and Community Services, funds projects up to $25,000 under the Capacity Building section of its Women’s Leadership and Development Programme. The Projects run for 9 months from September to May. WWDA was successful in last year’s funding round, and between September 2004 and May 2005 developed the WWDA Information and Referral Directory – a Portal which can be accessed via the WWDA website at www.wwda.org.au. (If you have not used the directory yet, log on and explore the wide range of topics and contacts you can make via this Portal – from State/Territory Access Auditors to Hand Control Car Conversions to Volunteering.) WWDA gratefully acknowledges the support of the Commonwealth Government through this Programme which enabled WWDA to develop the Portal.

WWDA has submitted an application for the September 2005-May 2006 funding round. WWDA has an urgent need to develop a system registering and using its members in representative and advocacy work. We have a large pool of talented members, many of whom indicate that they are available to give assistance to the work of WWDA. Our application is for a project which would enable us to develop a register of potential representatives – we have a good number of women who are ‘ready to go’; to develop a series of documents which would outline the roles and responsibilities of our Reps; to enable Reps to report on their representational work in a systematic way; to consolidate the current range of representative positions; and to identify new strategic positions where WWDA representatives could make a difference to the status of women with disabilities.

‘What Women Want’ Women’s Forum

The National Foundation of Australian Women convened the ‘What Women Want’ Forum held in Canberra on 12 July 2005. The Forum took the form of a workshop on the ‘Effect of the Federal Government’s Recent Policy Changes on Women of Working Age’. Sue Salthouse was a member of the Panel which organised the Forum, and compiled a background paper which looked at the combined impact on women with disabilities of the Industrial Relations reforms and the ‘Welfare to Work’ reforms. This paper is available from the WWDA Office or from Sue. Another position paper was presented by Robin Stewart-Crompton, a former Deputy Secretary in the Department of Workplace Relations with specific experience in industrial law and practice, international labour law and occupational health and safety. The third paper examining the effect of Welfare and Industrial Relations reforms on Sole Parents, was presented by Rille Walshe from the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children Inc. A raft of papers from a number of women’s organisations formed a dossier of background perspectives on the situation. An e-copy of all papers can be obtained by contacting the WWDA office or from Sue.

The forum was attended by about 40 representatives from women’s organisations and tertiary institutions as well as personnel from the Department of Workplace Relations and the Department of Family and Community Services. Because of illness in the family, Sue was unable to attend and WWDA was ably represented by Christina Ryan (also of ACTCOSS).

Important outcomes from the Forum are that there will be further dialogue with Government Ministers involved in the reforms, and that funding raised by organisations and donated by individuals, and then augmented by the University of Canberra has been sufficient to engage the University of Canberra’s National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) to look in detail on the effect which the proposed IR legislation will have on Sole Parents. In the near future, it may be possible to undertake similar modelling on the effects on women with disabilities.

Telecommunications Grant success

The WWDA Telecommunications Group has been successful in its application for funding under the Consumer Representations Programme 2005/2006 of the Department of Communications Information Technology and the Arts. The Grant of approximately $9,000 (incl. GST) will enable WWDA to continue to have representatives on the major Telecommunications Advisory Groups, and to contribute to ensuring fairness and equity for consumers with disability in a highly competitive environment.