WWDA Submission to the Australians Working Together ‘Listening to the Community’ Discussion Paper
‘Australians Working Together’ is the name of the Australian Government’s Strategy for the implementation of welfare reform. In 2001, the Australian Government released a Discussion Paper called ‘Listening to the Community’ which canvassed a number of changes designed to encourage people with disabilities into paid employment and/or participation in community activities. This is WWDA’s Submission in response to the Discussion Paper. Copyright WWDA 2001.
Thank you for the invitation to Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA) to respond to the Australians Working Together initiative through the discussion paper “Listening to the Community”. The following comments are provided on the issues raised in that paper. In general, Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA) welcomes any initiative that would provide additional support and incentives, to encourage people with disabilities on income support to stay connected to the economic and social life of Australia, whether through participation in the paid workforce or in community activities. We also welcome a commitment to improve assessment procedures by Centrelink in order to ensure quicker, more effective outcomes for people with disabilities.
However our members have raised a number of concerns with the initiative as it stands and believe that there are a number of matters that require clarification. For convenience we have grouped these under the Issues For Discussion headings on Page 13 of Listening to the Community – A fair Deal for People with Disabilities.
1. How can we do more to encourage people with disabilities to participate socially and/or economically?
The major requirement is for sufficient funding to assist people with disabilities to prepare for employment to travel to job interviews and to obtain ongoing support in the workplace should they need it. The funding allocated to people with disabilities is $177 million over 4 years. This is approximately 0.1% of the total $1.7 billion allocation for the Working Together initiative. Even though we have no figures on the percentage of the disability population who are job seekers or potential job seekers, this does not appear to be a large amount given that approximately one fifth of Australians have a disability.
If these funds are intended to cover establishment of 23,300 extra places for disability employment assistance and rehabilitation, including intensive assistance to job seekers, 5200 places for students with disabilities and the salaries of the newly appointed Disability Coordination Officers, it seems that they will be rather thinly spread. Lack of sufficient funding to provide appropriate support, could be counter-productive to encouraging people with disabilities into economic activity.
The statement on page 13 that people will receive better service from the disability employment services because of the new accreditation system is questionable. The complexity of the accreditation system will ensure that the services will be spending more staff hours on compliance with the accreditation criteria, thus reducing the time they can spend with their clients.
It is also our understanding that the disability services are to be shifted over to the payment system used by mainstream job network services, whose clients do not require the same level of support. This means that disability services will not be able to spend support time with their clients and therefore only people with minimal support needs will be placed because the services will not be able to afford to spend time with people with higher support needs. This is a real sticking point in encouraging participation, but it is not obvious from the discussion paper. We believe these issues need to be addressed when consulting with the community.
We are concerned that overall lack of jobs and inability to provide appropriate support for new job seekers, will cause them to experience frustration and lowered self-esteem as a result making themselves available for jobs and being rejected. People with disabilities have experienced rejection in many areas of their lives; rejection in the job market may discourage them from further attempts at economic and social participation.
Although we welcome the exemption of people with disabilities from activity requirements, we wonder whether this could result in their not being offered the same level of assistance to participate in community work as volunteers as those without a disability who are on a work for the dole scheme. This is important because many people with disabilities who are not job ready would be able to contribute as volunteers if given appropriate support to do so. This matter needs clarification.
There are currently many barriers to people with a disability becoming volunteers, not the least of which is lack of training and access awareness in a sector, whose members often still regard people with a disability as needy receivers of servers and not as contributors. An educational campaign highlighting the contribution people with disabilities can make to the sector would be beneficial (see comments under Issue 3 below).
Clarification is also required as to whether all the additional placements are in services offering competitive employment or whether they are in supported employment’s (ie sheltered workshops).
We welcome the establishment of 5200 new VET and 1500 higher education places. However no details are provided as to whether there will be an increase in disability support officers needed to support these people in training. If there is no provision in the budget for the training organisations for this, it will mean overload of the Disability support officers who will not be able to provide adequate services.
With respect to the proposed network of Disability Coordination Officers, there is insufficient detail as to what their role will be, or what organisation will administer the network. How much of the $177 million disability allocation will be used to finance their employment? In order to optimise the usage of these funds, may we suggest every effort be made to employ suitably qualified people with disabilities in these positions.
2. What different processes or types of assistance might we need for people with a range of disability types and circumstances?
Our members have identified financial problems as a major issue in participation social and economic life. One member commented that it is not recognised how many problems confront people with disabilities, especially “the big one, poverty! People with disabilities don’t volunteer, work or study because they can’t afford to – bottom line.”
This is cited as a problem across a range of disability types. One member stated that to attend a 1.5-hour numeracy and literacy class she would have to spend $40.00 in taxi fares. Another member, attending an approved TAFE course, claimed that she was told that, although she was entitled to assistance with transport, she would have to pay taxi fares up front and be refunded. As a DSP recipient she was unable to do this. She was eventually granted taxi vouchers, because of extenuating circumstances.
Additional problems associated with transport were cited by members; “wheelchair taxis are few and far between so waiting times can be extremely challenging”. The expense of having to travel o training institutions by taxi – even with subsidies, are very high for those living in outlying areas. Other disincentives were long exhausting journeys on public transport and lack of suitable disability parking.
Possible solutions: a realistic level of assistance with transport costs is urgently required if many people with disabilities are to even contemplate participation in a range of activities. The introduction of a fortnightly supplement of $20.80 to help meet incidental costs such as travel to courses for people who attend approved literacy and numeracy training is welcome, but why could it not be extended to people attending other training courses or volunteering? Also it would seem that the allowances may need to be varied to take account of the length of journey a person needs to undertake and the level of support needed.
People with disabilities may need the assistance in the morning to get ready for work. The availability of attendant care varies from region to region. Some financial assistance may be needed to allow people to purchase appropriate services.
In the case of people with visual impairments in particular, there is a need for access to adaptive technology before they embark on study or the search for employment. These people are unable to demonstrate their skills or to write essays, exams etc, without the appropriate equipment. They run the risk of being rejected by employers because they do not appear to have the ability to carry out the requirements of the job. Similarly the may not gain admission to courses of study because they cannot prove the have the pre-requisite educational levels for the course. Perhaps some funding could be made available to employment services, to acquire equipment which could be loaned to potential students and job seekers.
Other financial concerns
Members have also raised the issue of expenses associated with moving into the workplace. One member cites the issues of dental health. “My teeth are rotting due to the medication I take. I still go out but my confidence has plummeted due to the decay”. Dental hospitals only do emergency extractions; she has been quoted $3200 for private treatment. This young woman is clearly at a disadvantage when “engaging with the community”.
There are doubtless many other financial problems facing people with disabilities. Perhaps a partial solution to the problems could be a variation above the base level bonus of $312 for re-entry to the workforce, to be provided to people in specific hardship situations. The fact that no such assistance is paid to people entering the voluntary sector is hardly likely to make this an attractive option to people with disabilities whose finances are already stretched to their limit.
Flexibility in hours and conditions of work
Our members have made the point strongly that many people with disabilities can not work long hours, and some have fluctuating energy levels due to their particular disability. Some programs already exist to support people with disabilities in the workplace, but they need to be promoted more widely to the business and community sectors. There could also be an option to assist people to work from home, in arrangements where they attend the workplace one or two days per week.
Another possible solution to the problem of attendance at a distant workplace, which may not be adapted to there need, could be the provision of micro-credit to people with disabilities to start their own businesses at home. See discussion on Issue 3 below.)
Safe and comfortable work environments
This needs to go beyond normal occupational health and safety and the supply of equipment to individuals, which is currently covered by existing government programs. This may simply means installing handrails in staff washrooms, setting aside a rest room with a bed, so that employees with disabilities may lie down at lunch time.
Improved Centrelink procedures
Any proposals to streamline procedures to assess and refer people with disabilities are very welcome. Our members have frequently raised issues concerning delays in assessment, either for the Disability Support Pension (DSP) or for access to training programs. One member has stated that it took ten months from the time of her application, till she was able to commence an approved TAFE course. She is now doing the course of her choice but “the blocks they (Centrelink and the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service) put in the way would have crushed and discouraged many.” If cases like this are widespread, many people with disabilities may not have the sheer physical stamina to see the process through to an acceptable outcome.
There is a perception among some members that Centrelink staff view with some suspicion, the person with a disability who is anxious to work even when she/he has a high enough impairment rating to be eligible for the DSP. They apparently believe that the person is not as incapacitated as they claim and one member alleges that her determination tow work, between periods of hospitalisation resulted in a review of her DSP eligibility.
We do not as yet, have any detailed proposals as to how the new procedures for Centrelink will be developed. We would suggest that people with disabilities be involved in the development of these procedures from the beginning. This involvement could include designing training courses for staff and making suggestions on the type of assessments which are appropriate for various disability types.
We suggest that, where possible people with disabilities are paid consultancy fees for their expertise. People with disabilities are tired of having their brains picked at consultations. They often have extensive knowledge of disability policy and of practical applications. They do not necessarily want an outing to go to a consultation. Their time is as valuable as that of other members of the community and this needs to be recognised.
Similarly, the new services accreditation system will be require the establishment of accreditation bodies and complaints hearing bodies. All these bodies will require representatives of the disability community. These positions should be advertised in appropriate media and formats with sufficient time for people with disabilities to prepare their applications. We assume that disability representatives will be paid appropriate sitting fees for meetings and consultancy fees for any additional expert advice they provide.
3. How can we do more to encourage businesses and the community to generate better opportunities for people with disabilities?
There have been a number of initiatives in the past decade designed to promote the employment of people with disabilities and to raise their profile in the wider community. For example the Prime Minister’s Employer of the Year Award and the Prime Minister’s Gold Medal Access Awards. The Supported Wages System and the Workplace Modifications Scheme, (to provide financial assistance for specific workplace modifications or purchase of specialised equipment) have been developed to encourage employers to recruit suitably qualifies people with disabilities. However, it appears that these initiatives have not been sufficient to ensure that business provides opportunities for job seekers with disabilities in proportion to their numbers.
To date there have been no such initiatives to encourage the community sector to provide appropriate opportunities for people with disabilities to undertake voluntary work.
However, it may be possible to build on the existing programs to encourage business and the community to provide additional opportunities for the economic and social participation of people with disabilities. For example:
- the Workplace Modification Scheme might be expanded to support employers who wish to make their workplace accessible so that job-seekers with disabilities are able to apply for positions in their business;
- a panel of people with disabilities who have integrated successfully into the workforce, could be formed to advise employers who might be considering employing people with disabilities. This might involve presentations in the workplace, by people with disabilities in the same industry;
- a scheme similar to the Prime Minister’s Employer of the Year could be established in the voluntary sector, to promote the contribution that people with disabilities could make to community organisations, could be a positive initiative. Organisations could receive awards for supporting volunteers with disabilities.
- assistance with modifications and equipment could also be considered for the community sector;
- provision of micro credit to people with disabilities to start their own small businesses. Micro-finance initiatives have worked well in developing countries and are especially suited to the needs of women who may have family responsibilities. It could be a major source of assistance to people with disabilities in rural and remote areas.
As a general comment we note that there are no specific proposals to assist rural and remote job seekers. There is simply a request to the public to provide suggestions. Some indications of government thinking on this matter and the funds available for initiatives in this area would have been helpful in framing our response.
We are also curious as to why there does not appear to be a text only version of the discussion paper and fact sheets on the disability page of the Together Website. As this page will presumably be read mainly by people with disabilities, we hope this oversight can be rectified as soon as possible.