WWDA Submission to the Federal Government’s Reference Group on Welfare Reform


In late September 1999, Senator Jocelyn Newman (Minister for Family and Community Services) announced that social policy would be the next major reform priority of the Howard Government. Senator Newman also announced that a Reference Group will guide the development of a Discussion Paper on Welfare Reform. The following document is the Submission from Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) to the Government’s Reference Group on Welfare Reform. Copyright WWDA 1999.


Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA)

WWDA is the national peak advocacy organisation for women with disabilities in Australia. It is a federating body of individuals and network in each State and Territory and is made up of women with disabilities and associated organisations. It is the only organisation in Australia of its kind and one of a very small number internationally. The organisation is run by women with disabilities for women with disabilities. WWDA has a commitment to providing employment and training opportunities for women with disabilities and employs women with disabilities to conduct projects, undertake consultations and research issues. WWDA addresses disability within a social model, which identifies the barriers and restrictions facing people with impairments as the focus for reform.


The Welfare Reform Agenda is Important for Women With Disabilities

The Agenda may intensify or extend restrictions and barriers to participation for women with disabilities, or it may reduce them. In the body of this submission we summarise the specific discrimination and the extensive barriers that women with disabilities face, and the social consequence of their exclusion. The Welfare Reform is an extraordinary opportunity to address these issues in their wider setting, in ways which do not reinforce the problems of the past.

WWDA shares the government’s vision of a society where people with disabilities are not excluded, and where they can fully participate as citizens in the economic, social and cultural life of the nation. Thus any strategy which looks to the principles of mutual obligation, self-reliance and early intervention requires a clear sense of the reality of the situations that disabled women face. We need to go beyond rhetoric to the examination of policy in terms of effective outcomes.

WWDA is therefore concerned that the Reform Agenda documents depend so heavily for their ideological focus on the morally laden terminology of “welfare dependence”. We believe the notion that women with disabilities may be dependent on welfare, can be used to undermine attempts to achieve equitable participation. The term demeans and devalues the extraordinary efforts of many women with disabilities to survive in a disabling social and physical environment.


The Main Welfare Reform Issues for Women With Disabilities

Women with disabilities appear, from the government record, to be one of the most marginalised groups in Australia. They:

  • are less likely to be in paid work than other women, men with disabilities or the population as a whole. Men with disabilities are almost twice as likely to have jobs than women with disabilities;
  • earn less than their male counterparts. 51% of women with a disability earn less than $200 per week compared to 36% of men with a disability. Only 16% of women with a disability earn over $400 per week, compared to 33% of men with a disability;
  • are less likely than their male counterparts to receive a senior secondary and tertiary education. Only 16% of all women with disabilities are likely to have any secondary education compared to 28% of men with disabilities;
  • are less likely to own their own houses than their male counterparts;
  • pay the highest level of their gross income on housing, yet are in the lowest income earning bracket;
  • are more likely to be institutionalised than their male counterparts;
  • regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or class are assaulted, raped and abused at a rate of at least two times greater than non-disabled women;
  • are often forced to live in situations in which they are vulnerable to violence;
  • are more likely to experience violence at work than other women, men with disabilities or the population as a whole;
  • are more likely to be unlawfully sterilised than their male counterparts;
  • are less likely to receive vocational rehabilitation or entry to labour market programs;
  • report a greater need for unmet help than their male counterparts;
  • are less likely to receive appropriate services than men with equivalent needs or other women.

(Anderson 1996; Frohmader 1998; WWDA 1998; ABS 1993).

It can be seen then that on the whole women with disabilities have much worse educational and employment prospects than women without disabilities, and significantly poorer opportunities than men with disabilities, across all disability groups. They are less likely than disabled men to seek to use employment services, less likely to be referred to rehabilitation services, and more likely to have non-vocational outcomes from rehabilitation. Where women with disabilities are employed, their jobs are poorer paid, and more insecure than for men with disabilities – or women without disabilities (For more information on the position of women with disabilities in Australia see Appendix 1).

These stark findings are highlighted in the following case studies:

Case Study 1

A woman with multiple disabilities secures full-time employment in a managerial position after two years on the Disability Support Pension. Because she found the job on her own initiative (not through an Employment Agency) she is not considered eligible for the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service (which can provide workplace modifications and other support). Her new employer cannot afford the necessary workplace modifications she requires. She badly wants the job so is forced to pay for the workplace modifications herself.

Case Study 2

A woman with a disability finds a full-time job and is able to come off the Disability Support Pension. Her new job pays around $40,000pa. Because she is now earning an Award wage, she is only eligible for any entitlements (such as Health Care Card, Pharmaceutical Benefits etc) for a period of 1 year. Her disability is chronic and degenerative. Access to entitlements are withdrawn after she has been employed for 1 year. She now spends one third of her wage on costs directly related to her disability. For example, she is no longer eligible for Home Help Services, and because she is working full-time and has a degenerative disability, she is unable to undertake housework and maintain her garden etc. She is now forced to pay for a cleaner and a gardener. She is also forced to pay for her medical and pharmaceutical costs (which are considerable) as well as transport to and from work and so on.

Case Study 3

A young woman with a psychiatric disability is employed 5 hours per week by a non-government organisation. She is 32 years old and has been on the Disability Support Pension since leaving school. This is her first job. She is paid $50 per week ($10 per hour) which is the maximum she can earn before her Disability Support Pension is affected. Because she is in public housing, she is required to notify the Housing Department of the $50 per week she now earns on top of her Disability Support Pension. The Housing Department then increases her rent so that she is paying 25% of her total income on rent. Her heating allowance is also increased. Because she now has a part-time job, she now also has to pay for public transport to and from work. She also has to purchase new clothing. In practice, this means that this young woman ends up only getting around $10 of the $50 per week she earns, effectively earning $2 per hour. She states that it is “hardly worth working”.

Case Study 4

An older woman with a disability applies for a part-time job. She is told by the prospective employers that she is well qualified for the position, however they would rather employ a young unemployed person because they can get a government subsidy.

Case Study 5

A 40 year old woman with multiple disabilities applies to enter the Commonwealth Public Service. She has spent the previous 4 years undertaking training in her own time (and at her own expense) to update her skills so that she will have a good chance of being accepted into the Public Service. When she undertakes the application process for the Commonwealth Public Service, the officer overseeing the process informs her ‘not to disclose on her application form that she has a disability’. She is told that if she discloses her disability on the application form, she ‘won’t even be considered’.

Case Study 6

A woman with a psychiatric disability who has been on the Disability Support Pension for many years, is asked what would need to happen in order for her to move off the Disability Support Pension into employment. She says that she would need to have a full-time “real” job with award wages. She says that she would need the security of a ‘permanent’ job because these days much of the employment is either contract, part-time, temporary, casual etc. She views the Disability Support Pension as giving her ‘income security’ and says she would be ‘too scared’ to come off the Disability Support Pension because she fears she wouldn’t be able to ‘get back on’ if she needed to (for example if her employment ended).

Case Study 7

A small non-government organisation advertises for a Project Officer for a period of 12 months. The successful applicant is a woman who happens to be deaf. In order to fulfil the requirements of the job, the woman needs access to a volume control speaker phone as well as a modem for electronic mail. The organisation doesn’t have the funds to purchase this equipment, so contacts the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service for assistance. The Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service cannot provide the equipment because the woman did not get the job via an Employment Agency. The organisation then contacts the Commonwealth Department of Family & Community Services, Disability Programs, Workplace Modifications Scheme. The organisation is required to make a formal application to the Scheme. Once completed, the organisation is required to send the Application to the Commonwealth Department of Family & Community Services who in turn sends it to the State branch of the Commonwealth Department of Family & Community Services for approval. This takes 3 weeks. The organisation is then told that the application has been rejected – no rationale is given. The organisation then follows this up with the State branch of the Commonwealth Department of Family & Community Services, who tell the organisation to contact the Commonwealth Department of Family & Community Services as ultimately the decision rests with the Commonwealth Department. The organisation does this, and is told to re-apply, which it does. Again, this process takes another 4 weeks. The organisation is then told that they will approve the application for a volume control speaker phone, but not a modem. The organisation is also told that BEFORE the funds for the speaker phone can be provided by the Commonwealth Department, the woman will need to prove that she is in fact, deaf. The Commonwealth Department states that it will require a report from an audiometry test conducted by a hearing specialist, and it needs to be current – not a copy of a previous test. To comply with this, the woman needs to pay for a visit to her GP in order to get a referral to a hearing specialist (which she also has to pay for). The process to date has taken 8 weeks. The woman by this stage has become so disillusioned and frustrated by the bureaucratic red tape that she resigns from the position. She also realises that the position is only for a 12 month period and already 2 months have passed and she hasn’t even started the job yet because she hasn’t got the equipment she needs. From the employers perspective, this cumbersome experience puts them off wanting to employ a person with a disability in the future.

Case Study 8

A woman with a disability has been in the Public service for many years. She is no longer young, but finds it hard to save for her retirement as she has to spend a large part of her income on getting to and from work and keeping her house going. She can’t drive so, if she has any problems such as medical appointments before work or she misses the bus, it’s a $20.00 taxi fare. She has to employ a cleaner and someone to mow the lawn and cut the trees and cart the rubbish away. She is not eligible for Home and Community Care (HACC), even if she is sick. She also has to pay for clothing alterations if she needs them because she is too short sighted to thread a sewing machine. She would also have to pay for any low vision aids she might use in her daily life such as CCT magnifyers. So she puts off getting anything like this until she can’t manage without it. So how does she save for her old age? She has been on the same salary level for more than ten years. If she works into old age she is not eligible for a Seniors Card. She is always told she would be better off to retire and live on the pension, but she would rather continue working as she has no family in the State where she works and she thinks she can still contribute to the community. However she thinks many people would not be able to continue under these circumstances. She thinks they would just give up.


The bleak picture this brief analysis paints highlights the need for a gendered strategy to create the conditions necessary for women with disabilities to escape the cycle of poverty and reliance on social security as their source of economic support.

It is of concern to WWDA that there is no discussion in the document “The Challenge of Welfare Dependency in the 21st Century” that suggests an understanding of the differential issues affecting women with disabilities as opposed to men.

WWDA believes that the crucial welfare reform issues for women with disabilities would be:

  • recognition of the need for personal autonomy and recognition of personal worth;
  • active support to access effective rehabilitation services, with non-discriminatory outcomes;
  • specialist employment services with experienced counsellors;
  • opportunities to test themselves in the job market without loss of DSP rights, until they are established;
  • continuation of funding for the additional costs of disability, while in the workforce;
  • continuing effective support structures, such as local, regional and state women with disabilities networks;
  • further research into issues of social exclusion of women with disabilities; for example as recipients of DSP, in government employment programs and as CRS clients.

Welfare Reform Agenda Principles

The Government has voiced its strong sense that social benefits should only flow to those in need in an environment of mutual obligation. However obligation is just one element in a string of relations in a society. Before obligation can be imposed, or accepted, there is a need for the social recognition of women with disabilities as participants in society – with rights to a satisfying and fulfilling life, and the chance to contribute to the economic and social life of the nation. People with disabilities in general have expressed concerns that they are not recognised as legitimate members of society – so too, women with disabilities express concerns where disability is tempered by gender inequality. This recognition question is fundamental to any resolution of the detailed questions raised by the Reform Agenda.

Any reform must ensure more equitable access to community resources. The position of women with disabilities in Australia demonstrates the critical need to redress the current lack of equity to resources such as education, training, rehabilitation and income security for women with disabilities. We disagree that equity goals can be met simply. A diverse population of people with disabilities requires specific and sometimes, complex, responses. Women with disabilities need affirmative action across all areas of government policy and programs if they are to be treated equitably.

A number of barriers stand in the way of women with disabilities increasing self reliance and capacity building. These include the requirement that women emphasise their inabilities in order to receive benefits, which do neither meet their mobility or personal assistance needs. WWDA is also concerned that government’s continued opposition to direct payments such as the attendant care allowance act as major barriers to women’s social and economic participation.

Women with disabilities have cited lack of confidence and skills as a major barrier to them taking up leadership roles in their own families and communities, including education, training and employment (WWDA 1998, Duncan & Berman-Bieler 1998). Leadership is a major issue for women with disabilities in Australia. Lack of training opportunities, employment and education mean that women with disabilities have few chances to develop leadership skills. In most states of Australia, access to higher education and training for women with disabilities is limited.

It is clear that in order to increase self reliance, capacity building and the economic participation of many women with disabilities, a significant amount of work needs to be done in areas of personal development such as self-esteem, confidence, assertiveness, as well as education and training around rights and so on. It must be recognised that for many women with disabilities, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, lack of awareness about their rights, experience of abuse, harrassment and discrimination, all act as barriers to training, education, rehabilitation and employment. In order to increase the economic participation of women with disabilities, genuine efforts must be made to empower women with disabilities so they can take up opportunities in training, education, and employment.


Disability Support Pension

1. The development of new approaches to maximise the scope and opportunity for work.
This could be a positive step forward for women with disabilities. There remains, however, the very real danger of women with disabilities being driven into the labour market for poverty wages, especially while they exist as a largely unskilled pool of labour with low self esteem.

2. A stronger focus on prevention and early intervention for people with disabilities.
This is once again a very positive statement. Yet rehabilitation services require a massive injection of funding. The services that do exist have tight eligibility criteria and long delays. Rehabilitation services avoid prevention programs and withdraw from women with chronic conditions and with a lower likelihood of employment outcomes. There is reference to an alternative source of payment to the DSP for new applicants. We have concerns that this new payment could institutionalise women claimants into a disabled role. There is a danger this “limbo” payment will deliver neither support services nor sense of entitlement that comes from citizenship status.

3. The scope to tailor assistance more flexibly to meet the needs of individuals.
This discussion of case based funding does not appear to recognise individual autonomy. One of goals of a flexible system should be the autonomy and empowerment of women with disabilities with scope for them to make decisions about how funds available should be used. Disabled women must be active participants in any flexible process.


Critical Outcomes

WWDA would advocate the following critical outcomes from the welfare reform:

  • Entitlement to personal care assistance/attendant care sufficient to enable effective participation. The care should be provided in ways which maximise individual autonomy, and should be recognised as a legitimate cost of disability, through disability support payments, and/or community care, and/or as a deduction through the taxation system for employed workers.
  • The identification of regional specialist rehabilitation advisers to work with women with disabilities to facilitate access to rehabilitation services, focussing on the achievement of personal goals.
  • Sustained support for specialist employment services, which recognise the specific problems of women with disabilities entering or re-entering the workforce.
  • Recognition that entitlement to DSP type support should be continued for a minimum of 2 years after entry to the workforce, and retention of ancillary benefits for a minimum of at least one year.
  • Introduction of a new benefit scheme that provides financial support for women with disabilities to cover the additional cost of the disability while in the workforce, for as long as the disability continues.
  • Continuing funding of WWDA as the national body which can facilitate national, regional and local support networks.
  • The development and implementation of a cross portfolio research program to identify the factors which limit the access of women with disabilities to services such as social security payments, employment, education and rehabilitation.

Appendix 1: The Position of Women With Disabilities in Australia

In Australia approximately 19% of women have a disability (Mulder, 1996; ABS 1999). The interplay of gender and disability discrimination further restricts opportunities for women with disabilities. Women with disabilities are less likely to have completed basic schooling or to obtain a university education than men with disabilities and non-disabled women. Fifty- one (51)% of women with disabilities (15-64 years) left school at age 15 years compared with 30% of non disabled women.

Commonwealth Rehabilitation Services statistics for 1994/5 indicate only 35% of referred clients were female with women more likely to be rehabilitated to independent living (45%) than vocational goals (36%) (Anderson, 1996). This reflects only a slight improvement since a review of rehabilitation services for women conducted a decade earlier (Meekosha 1986). Thus women remain disadvantaged in accessing rehabilitation and their outcome status in relation to labour market participation compared with their male counterparts.

Women with disabilities also have less access to or are less likely to utilise employment services than men. In 1993, 38% of Disability Support Program service clients were female (Anderson, 1996). In 1994, 28% of people with disabilities registered with the CES were female compared with a total of 38% of all CES registrants being female (Anderson, 1996). While disabled people in general remain discouraged workers, the situation is even bleaker for women. Compared to men with disabilities and other women, women with disabilities are less likely to be employed and are more likely to be employed in lower paid positions such as clerical or sales work (Frohmader, 1998).

Women in general continue to earn less than men, on average in all categories of earnings and occupations (ABS, 1993). Women with disabilities suffer the dual discrimination of being worse off than both men with disabilities and other women. 51% of women with disabilities in Australia live on less than $200 per week, compared to 36% of men with disabilities. Only 16% of women with disabilities earn over $400 compared with 33% of men with disabilities (Anderson, 1996). Because of their reduced access to income security women with disabilities are less likely to own their own home than either men with disabilities or other women (Frohmader, 1998).

For women with disabilities opportunities and expectations of gaining training and employment in a particular field requires overcoming considerable attitudinal barriers. Furthermore, the impact of structural restrictions on an individual woman’s access to social networks and on her self esteem and confidence is significant. A study conducted amongst women with physical disabilities in Victoria found that loneliness and depression were the most common factors identified as affecting the participant’s wellbeing closely followed by lack of income and lack of access to aids and equipment (Temby, 1997).


Appendix 2: References

Anderson, I. (1996) The Status of Women With Disabilities in Australia; report prepared for Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA); unpublished; Women With Disabilities Australia, Canberra.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (1996a. Disability, Ageing & Carers, Australia, disability and disabling conditions 1993. Cat.No.4433.0, Australian Government Publishing Service; Canberra.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (1999). Disability, Ageing & Carers, Australia, disability and disabling conditions 1993. Australian Government Publishing Service; Canberra.

Australian Bureau of Statistics; (1993); Average Weekly Earnings – States and Australia; Australian Government Publishing Service; Canberra.

Australian Bureau of Statistics; (1993); Women in Australia; Australian Government Publishing Service; Canberra.

Frohmader, C. (1998) Gender and Disability – A Resource Kit; unpublished; Canberra, Australia.

Meekosha, H. (1986) ‘Breaking In and Breaking Out: A Study of Women, Disability and Rehabilitation’, Department of Community Services, Canberra.

Mulder, L. (1996) ‘Reclaiming Our Rights: Access to existing police, legal and support services for women with disabilities who are deaf or hearing impaired who are subjected to violence’; A Report to the Department for Women, NSW.

Temby, D. (1997) ‘More and Less’; A Report of health and well-being experiences of Victorian women with physical disabilities and the nature and range of health and community services they use and want; Prepared for the Victorian Women With Disabilities Network, Victoria.

Duncan, B. & Berman-Bieler, R. (Eds.) (1998) ‘International Leadership Forum for Women With Disabilities Final Report’; Published by Rehabilitation International; New York, USA.