Jan Logie

Is it all in their heads?

by Jan Logie

After hearing around 100 submissions over 4 days on the latest welfare reform bill (see my summary of the first day of hearings here), some pretty strong themes have developed.

The most obvious theme is opposition. Quite overwhelming opposition. For many reasons. I hope this is a sign that increasing unemployment is helping people realise that ‘beneficiaries’ aren’t the problem.

There is much I could write about the detail of the submissions but for the sake of your sanity and mine I’ll break it down into different posts starting with:

Disability related concerns:

There needs to be coherence between different department’s plans and actions and pieces of legislation. This Bill is seen to run contrary to the updated Disability which was signed off by Cabinet this year and committed to leading focus on results in three cross-agency shared outcomes of:

  • Enabling Good Lives –
  • Disabled people have greater choice and control over supports, use more natural supports, and disability support funding is more efficiently uses
    Employment – an increase in the number of disabled people in paid employment
    Rebuild Christchurch – the Christchurch rebuild is inclusive of disabled people.

  • Promoting the Better Public Services results to be inclusive of disabled people
  • Business-as-usual actions by single agencies.

The many submitters also presented their views that the legislation runs contrary to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The now famous cry of that convention, that New Zealand was so involved in drafting, was “nothing about us, without us”. It’s a basic, but sadly this Bill seems to all those communities as a return to the old thinking of able bodied people deciding what is best for them. This knowing what’s best isn’t even based on research because there is an absolute dearth of research.

Barriers to employment

We heard very clearly that people’s own perception of their ability to work is not the problem. The problem is our disabling environment that discriminates against people with disabilities. Here are some of the things the Government could work on that would help people with disabilities get the work they are crying out for:

  • Attitudes of employers and fellow workers.
  • Availability of suitable jobs in the local economy.
  • Ability to make adjustments to the work place, this may be as simple as knowing to give only one instruction at a time or as complex as specific equipment.
  • Lack of coordination with health carer services, we heard that there is no coordination or prioritisation of carers schedules. So a carer may not get to see and dress someone who is in work until mid-morning.
  • Availability of flexible hours.
  • Availability of formal and informal support networks.
  • A person’s access to education and work experience.
  • Lack of accessible transport options.
  • An inaccessible built environment.

Barriers to accessing assistance

Work and Income is itself a barrier. Many people are referred to websites and phone lines to get appointments or information. These systems are inaccessible to significant groups of people. When there is an automated notification of a meeting this can be sent in a way that is inaccessible to the person for reasons of blindness, hearing impairment, or illiteracy. The office counters can also be inaccessible. Work and Income staff have no or completely inadequate training around disability awareness particularly, though not exclusively, in relation to neurological disorders, autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities and mental illness. This means they can’t necessarily communicate in an understandable way and people do suffer as a result. As one very competent and eloquent mother of a 27 year old son with a learning disability said (and I paraphrase) “I know we could claim more disability allowance but the processes are so difficult, even for me, that we don’t”.

Medical Assessments

People with disabilities are chronically over-assessed already. The last thing they need is another assessment. The Convention and plans have all been about moving New Zealand away from the medical model that treats people with disability as bodies needing intervention to actual people who have agency who need barriers removed to ensure their full participation in society.

Everyone expressed high levels of concern about the Minister having positively referenced the UK model medical assessment for income support which has seen some pretty disastrous results for people with disabilities, including increased suicides.

Preferred suppliers

Again, this is seen as another instance of choice being taken away and also deals with people with disabilities as more homogenous than they actually are. Just because two people have the same condition, it doesn’t mean that it will be experience or present in exactly the same way.

When the Government continually tells us they don’t want to pick winners, this seems to be an example where they hope to do just that.

We don’t know yet exactly what this is intended to cover so it could be only Pharmac funded drugs, it could be wheelchairs, it could be doctors, physios…

Currently the disability allowance only covers part of the cost of any disability support aid, but with this change to the law the Government could effectively control what services or products or drugs a person is able to buy, despite only contributing a percentage of the payment.

Diagnosis trigger shift in benefit category

People with cancer will be on the sickness benefit until they’re diagnosed as terminal. Changing your benefit category once you’ve had a terminal diagnosis can just be physically and emotionally impossible.

Renaming of invalid’s benefit to the supported living payment

It was almost unanimously requested to be renamed to the living payment allowance, as the supported living allowance is already the name of health sector funding. While this may seem a small issue to some, if you’re asked what your job is, and you don’t have a job your identity tends to get intermingled with the name of your income support. This is especially true for people with learning disabilities who make up over half of the people on the invalids benefit. People have been lobbying for years to get a name change.

Minimum Wage Exemption

Currently over 1000 people in New Zealand with learning disabilities are paid less than the minimum wage in the open employment market. This keeps people on income support, even if while they’re working. The minimum wage exemption should be phased out and employers should access financial support if needed through existing schemes.

The problem is so clearly not in the heads of the people with disabilities. The problem is with us and how we’ve organised this society.

Here are some of the brilliant ideas that were suggested as ways to get people into work:

  • Run a national disability awareness campaign.
  • Employ people with disabilities in the state sector to ensure public services are fully accessible including Work and Income.
  • Encourage the private sector to follow suit, by getting rid of the MWE and ensuring there are enough funds to enable employers to make suitable adjustments.
  • Create jobs.
  • Contract support agencies/DPO to work alongside people.
  • Bring back designated case managers who can build relationships with people and learn about their needs.
  • Ensure carers prioritise people with work or going to work interviews.
  • Increase disability allowances to enable people to cover transport and disability costs.
  • Extend the living payment provisions for the blind all groups entitled to the original payment.