‘Jumping through Hoops’ – Welfare and Industrial Relations Reform implications for women with disabilities

A Paper written and presented by Sue Salthouse on behalf of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) at the ‘What Women Want Workshop’ – A Workshop on the Effect of the Federal Government’s Recent Policy Changes on Women of Working Age. 12 July 2005, Pilgrim House Conference Centre, Canberra. Copyright 2005.


Maximising the employment of people with disabilities is a rational economic necessity of making the fullest use of the skills and abilities available in our and society (Ozkowski 2005). However, Welfare and Industrial Relations reforms must properly address the barriers which confront people with disabilities (and in particular women with disabilities) in seeking and maintaining employment. Otherwise the reforms currently proposed will merely have women with disabilities ‘jumping through hoops’.


Women with disabilities are a group of Australians with a strong work ethic. They recognise the personal and economic empowerment attached to ‘being employed’ and are eager to embrace any initiatives which will assist them to participate in the workforce. Large numbers of them (390,000) are in full and part-time employment. Large numbers are looking for paid work and large numbers are paid work aspirants.

The academic achievements of women with disabilities are great and equal to, or better than, those of men with disabilities. More than 71% of women with disabilities are now completing Year 10 or higher (compared to 68% of men with disabilities and 87% of able-bodied people). In tertiary education, 61% of the students with disabilities completing degrees in 2002 were women (WWDA 2004a).

However, examination of the employment situation for people with disabilities shows that the labour market is skewed against women with disabilities. They are discriminated against on the grounds of both gender and disability. The discrimination starts at Centrelink’s door. Women with disabilities consistently miss out when competing for jobs. In 2003 open funded employment services assisted more than 35,000 people with disabilities. Only 35% of those assisted were women (WWDA 2005).

In 2003, the labour force participation rate for women with disabilities was 46.9%, compared to 59.3% for men with disabilities. This is a greater than 12 percentage points difference. The unemployment rate for women with disabilities is about 8.6% and has improved little over the past 5 years, whereas that for men with disabilities has improved radically from 13.5% to 8.8%. The unemployment rate for the able-bodied population has improved from approximately 8% to approximately 5% over the same period (HREOC 2005; ABS 2004).

Moreover men with disabilities are far more likely to be in full-time employment (21% compared to 9%), whilst the converse is true for part-time employment (6% compared to 11%). Women with disabilities, whether employed part-time or full-time are likely to be in lower paid jobs (WWDA 2004b).

The ramifications of all this are significant and far-reaching, starting with the relegation of women with disabilities to the lower income brackets.

Getting a clear picture of the situation for women with disabilities is difficult. In general government reports do not publish desegregated data. This is not justified whilst such stark disparities exist in the employment outcomes for men and women with disabilities. In 2004, WWDA purchased desegregated data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Survey of Disability Ageing and Carers (ABS 2004). This showed that men with disabilities were more likely to have waged or business income (23% compared to 16%). There were just over half a million (23%) of women with disabilities receiving the Disability Support Pension (DSP), NewStart or some other form of government allowance. This compares to 447,000 (20%) of men with disabilities (WWDA 2004b). Grouped data masks the marginalisation of women with disabilities and is itself a discriminatory practice. Desegregation of data is essential, so that the inequities can be seen, assessed and addressed.

The proposed Welfare and Industrial Relations reforms will need to address the imbalances for women with disabilities.

Industrial Relations Reform

Analysis of the proposed Industrial Relations reforms shows that those in low income, part-time and casual positions will be most affected. Women with disabilities are over represented in such positions. At all income levels the current trend of casualisation of the workforce will be accelerated.

A synopsis of the proposed changes is:

  • removal of employment conditions from awards

All employees in part-time and casual positions will be affected by this. Employees who are vulnerable to exploitation have the greatest need for the safety net afforded by awards and set minimum wages. Already over represented in part-time and casual positions, women with disabilities will be particularly affected.

  • change the way minimum wages are set, with a risk of reducing them

Women with disabilities are already over represented in positions where the minimum wage is paid. The costs associated with living with a disability must be met regardless of income level, so that women with disabilities on the minimum wage live well below the poverty line (approximately $27,000).

  • individual contracts which undercut existing rights and conditions.

Many women with disabilities may not have the knowledge required to understand the conditions in an Australian Workplace Agreement (AWA). Because of their low self-esteem women with disabilities will be most affected by the power imbalance between the employer and employee. If AWAs are increased from 3-year to 5-year terms then a woman with disabilities will be locked into unfair conditions for additional periods. Job security is far more precarious for women with disabilities, who therefore cannot risk leaving even if current conditions are poor. Women with disabilities benefit from collective bargaining, and award wage conditions.

  • keep unions out of workplaces, reduce workers’ negotiating and bargaining rights.

Women with disabilities are affected by this in the same way as all employees.

  • abolish redundancy pay and protection from unfair dismissals for people who work in small businesses.

Low self-esteem will make many women with disabilities unaware of the concept of unfair dismissal, so that safeguards against it and the safety net of redundancy pay are very important. The removal of this protection will have a high impact on women with disabilities. Where dismissal is disability-related recourse to discriminatory laws may be necessary-a pathway which is disadvantageous to people with disabilities. The existence of this fallback position may now act as a disincentive for employment of people with disabilities relative to other candidates (Ozkowski 2005). It may similarly act as a disincentive to employ women because the Sex Discrimination Act provides a similar fall back position for women.

  • reduce the powers of independent umpire to settle workplace disputes and set minimum work standards.

Any reduction in the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission will reduce outcomes for all employees.

Welfare Reform

The new Welfare Reform rules will affect women who qualify for the DSP after 1 July 2006. This will effectively be all students with disabilities coming off Youth Allowance and those with newly acquired or diagnosed disabilities.

The ‘new-DSPs’ who are assessed as capable of working for 15 hours/week or more will be placed on NewStart Allowance and expected to meet requirements of this allowance. Dubbed the ‘Disability Dole’, its recipients will be $77 per fortnight worse off than their ‘old-DSP’ counterparts (Ellis 2005). From 1 July 2006 a 2-tiered DSP system will operate.

The NewStart Allowance does not take into account the additional costs of disability, and the additional costs associated with training or looking for work. Recipients with disabilities will therefore be disadvantaged compared to their able-bodied counterparts.

A summary of budget outlines (Dutton 2005) with respect to people with disabilities are:

  • $554.6 million over 4 years for people with disabilities, $482.3 million to employment related assistance.

Money needs to be directed into addressing the national skills shortage with specific skills development programmes for people with disabilities going from welfare to work.

  • assist workforce participation of those assessed as capable of 15 or more hours work per week at award wages in the open market.

In 2002, 65,000 people with disabilities used both supported and open employment services to look for work. Forty thousand of these were on the DSP, 5,000 on NewStart and nearly 8,000 on some other form of income support. Twelve thousand were in paid employment (FaCS 2004). It is important to note that 74.6% of those in the workforce, worked for greater than 15 hours per week. In 2003, the number of people with disabilities in employment fell drastically (12.9% compared to 18.9%) and the numbers on NewStart and other allowances had already begun to climb (9.4% compared to 7.8%) (FaCS 2005).

The 8:1 ratio of DSP to NewStart evident in 2002 may well be reversed, so that huge numbers of women with disabilities will be trying to access Centrelink and employment services. More staff will be needed and all staff will need training to work effectively with women with disabilities.

  • such people will get NewStart or Youth Allowance.

The level of these allowances is such that people will be $77 per fortnight worse off compared to income under the DSP. This will result in increased hardship, homelessness etc.

  • such people will get the Pensioner Concession Card, Pharmaceutical Allowance and Telephone Allowance.

Although the threshold levels for retention of these allowances has been raised, people with disabilities will still be substantially penalised at low income levels when these supports are withdrawn.

People with disabilities have considerable costs associated with their disability. These include transport/travel, personal care, medical and health, domestic cleaning and maintenance, assistive equipment and home adaptations. Recognition of these added costs should mean that support payments are continued for longer periods of time and the threshold levels raised. Otherwise for many women with disabilities, remaining on income support is the most rational response to the reality of their situation (WWDA 2005).

  • Mobility Allowance increased to $100 per fortnight.

This level of Mobility Allowance is not adequate to cover travel costs for any aspect of employment.

  • required to undertake job search activities and have Mutual Obligation requirements.

Where people with disabilities are in competition with able bodied counterparts, they are disadvantaged because they have much greater drains on their income and energy because of their disabilities. If the same level of Mutual Obligation requirements (part-time employment, education/training or ‘work for the dole’) is applied, the situation is effectively discriminatory.

WWDA shares the government’s vision of an inclusive society where people with disabilities can fully participate as citizens. Thus any strategies which look to the principles of ‘mutual obligation, self-reliance and early intervention’ require a clear sense of the reality of the situations that women with disabilities face, and a commitment to addressing the barriers that stand in the way of them participating in the labour market (WWDA 2005).

  • comprehensive work capacity assessors will make assessments and have access to funds for rehabilitation.

Such assessors will need comprehensive training so that they can interact effectively with clients with disabilities.

  • provision of extra employment services to assist more people in: disability open employment services, Job Network, vocational rehabilitation, and the Personal Support Programme.

Comprehensive training will be needed for Centrelink and all levels of employment service staff to enable them to effectively support people with disabilities in job search activities.

  • the income tests for most allowances are increased, and the losses incurred for income earned above a threshold is reduced.

The budget outlines do not show the compliance framework which applies to people undertaking job search activities on NewStart or Youth Allowance. This will directly link payment to participation in Mutual Obligation activities. Payment cuts will be made without warning with the onus on the person with disabilities to prove a valid reason for non-compliance. This is an exceptionally difficult circumstance for people with disabilities. ‘Serious’ non-compliance conditions will result in an 8-week cessation of payment. The proviso that ‘people with disabilities will be case managed and receive limited finance assistance to meet essential expenses’ is of little comfort.

No concessions are given to people with disabilities for the additional energy needed to get ready for and travel to work, or the additional energy required to fulfil the work hours. There are no supports for the ongoing travel costs incurred by people with disabilities.

There are a number of existing incentives for employers (e.g. Wage subsidy Scheme, Supported Wage System, Workplace Modification Scheme) of people with disabilities. To date, they have not been very successful in increasing the proportion of people with disabilities in the workforce. Under the current budget initiatives there is a minimal increase in the assistance to employers of people with disabilities. Most of this increase goes to provide a website to give employers information on employment and training of people with disabilities.


In the preceding outlines of Welfare and Industrial Relations reforms it is not possible to identify any initiatives which will address the employment and employability imbalances which exist for women with disabilities. A necessary first action is for the Australian Government to acknowledge these inequities (WWDA 2005). Subsequent action is needed to address the problems. A significant action in this regard is the necessity for a return to the use of desegregated data in the areas of education and employment of people with disabilities. Data which is not desegregated hides the inequities and fosters their perpetuation. Targetted gender-specific action, based on research into identified barriers, is also needed. Threshold levels at which disability-related supports and services are reduced or discontinued must be further examined, so that the withdrawal rates do not act as a disincentive to gaining employment. The lack of portability of disability-related programs and service support both within and between jurisdictions and States must be addressed. Forums developed for information exchange and support groups for women with disabilities trying to enter the labour market should be developed and maintained (Ibid.).

The Welfare and Industrial Relations reforms ignore many of the realities of life for people with disabilities. Unless supports for employment are put in place, the only results for women with disabilities will be heightened activity with little change in employment outcomes, a heightened sense of frustration and failure, and a confirmation of the perception of having to ‘jump through hoops’ to no avail.


SDAC 2003 Sources of Income (‘000)


a table showing the SDAC 2003 Sources of Income

Australian Government Disability Services Census 2002 – Use of Employment Services (‘000)


a table showing the Australian Government Disability Services Census 2002 Use of Employment Services Includes use of both supported employment services and open employment services.

Use of Employment Services by Disability Type (%)


a table showing the Use of Employment Services by Disability Type


Australian Bureau of Statistics 2004 Disability, Ageing and Carers: Summary of Findings Australia, Cat.No.: 4430.0 2003

Dutton, P. 2005 Welfare to Work: Increasing participation of people with disabilities, Australian Government, Budget Fact Sheet,

Department of Family and Community Services 2004 Australian Government Disability Services Census 2002

Department of Family and Community Services 2005 Australian Government Disability Services Census 2003

Ellis, A. 2005 Canberra Advocate May 2005

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) 2005 National Inquiry into Employment and Disability; Issues Paper 1: Employment and Disability – The Statistics; HREOC, Sydney.

Ozkowski, S. 2005 People with Disabilities and productive diversity in the Australian Public Service, presentation to Australian Public Service Commission, HREOC June 2005, accessed online at http://www.hreoc.gov.au/disability_rights/speeches/2005/aps.htm

WWDA 2004a use of desegregated data tables from Department of Education, Science and Training (2002), Students 2002: Selected Higher Education Statistics, Australian Government 2002 purchased from DEST

WWDA 2004b use of desegregated data tables from Australian Bureau of Statistics Disability, Ageing and Carers: Summary of Findings Australia, Cat.No.: 4430.0 2003 purchased from ABS

Women With Disabilities Australia 2005, Submission to the HREOC National Inquiry into Employment and Disability, WWDA 2005