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Love or livelihood: a cruel dilemma for those of us with extreme disabilities

By David Heckendorf - posted Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Disability Support Pension places people with profound disabilities in a crippling dilemma: to choose to partner or to retain a half decent level of income support.

Would you marry, or enter into a de facto relationship, if it would cost you a third of your already subsistence-level income?

Jenni, and I were born with Cerebral Palsy similar to the characters in the excellent films My Left Foot and Dance Me To My Song. Severity of our disabilities is considered to be profound under the World Health Organization's classification (see RoGS 2014, Box 14.2), which means we need assistance with all of our daily core activities, such as: getting up and dressed; eating meals; bathing or showering; and using the bathroom.


As with many of our married friends, we struggled with this cruel dilemma when we were dating.

How does the DSP discourage domestic partnering?

Australia should be proud that its disability income support system dates back more than a century to the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act 1908 (Cth).

Nevertheless, the system is not without its weaknesses. For example, there are significant differences between marital status entitlements. Where the single fortnightly rate of income support is $766 per fortnight the couples' rate is $577.40 each: a difference of $188.60 each and $377.20 combined.

Different income earnings thresholds are also applied to the two groups. A single pensioner can earn $156pf before his/her income support will be reduced by 50¢ for every dollar earned thereafter. For couples, the threshold for their combined earned income is $276pf and both income supports are reduced by 40¢ for each dollar earned over the threshold.

So, why the differences?

Over the decades there have been a number of arguments justifying these differences. I have only space here to briefly discuss four.

Argument One: Couples can share resources

The reason for granting a higher of pension to a single person is that a married couple can share the costs of day-to-day living whereas a single person needs a relatively higher rate in order to enjoy the same living standard. (The Hon Bill Hayden, Minister for Social Security, 1974: 6689)


This reasoning, already dubious when applied to the general population, is particularly unconvincing when both partners have significant disabilities.

While buying larger portions of groceries, and the sharing of white‑goods and utilities bills might add up to some savings, it would hardly account for such a large difference between the single and partner rates and thresholds.

Wheelchair users, for example, need larger dwellings than their peers to accommodate and store disability‑related equipment. We often also need to rent in locations that are reasonably flat and close to public amenities.

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About the Author

David Heckendorf has profound Cerebral Palsy, which affects his physical ability to care for himself. Notwithstanding these limitations he holds a Masters of Laws Degree from the Australian National University and has in excess of a decade employment experience within the Australian and ACT Public Service. The opinions he expresses are his own.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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