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Disability Support Pensions: the myths and the facts

By Andrew McCallum - posted Tuesday, 15 February 2005

Sensible debate about the Disability Support Pension (DSP) can get lost in sensationalism. Inevitably when the issue gets a higher profile in the media, so too will stories of “pension cheats” and alarmist portrayals of the rise in the number of people on DSP.

Many arguments used to justify a crackdown on disability pensions are false or misleading. Myths like it is easy to get, that numbers of people on DSP are out of control and that it is for people who do not want to work are simply untrue.

ACOSS recently put out a paper Ten Myths & Facts about the Disability Support Pension that breaks down these myths. The paper outlines the facts of who is on the DSP and why.


Easy or hard work?

First of all, it is not easy to get the DSP. Recipients must have a serious medical condition independently assessed by doctors and vocational experts. The condition must prevent them within the next 2 years from working 30 hours a week or more.

There is also the misperception that all you need to get on DSP is a “bad back”. In reality, disabilities of people on DSP are more diverse and serious than “sore backs”: 33 per cent of people on DSP have musculo-skeletal disabilities (loss of mobility & limbs); 25 per cent have psychological & psychiatric conditions; 11 per cent have intellectual & learning disabilities; 5 per cent circulatory system problems; and, 21 per cent other conditions.

Then there is the notion that DSP and workforce participation are mutually exclusive. ACOSS agrees with the Government that Australia must bring more people with disabilities of workforce age into employment. Compared with other wealthy countries, we have a poor record in this area. Only 9 per cent of disability pensioners have income from employment compared with an average of about 30 per cent for other wealthy countries.

But this is not a problem to be solved with cutbacks but more employment assistance for people with disabilities as well as support from employers. In truth, people with disabilities face a series of hurdles to get work - employer discrimination, waiting lists for employment assistance, lack of access to buildings and other infrastructure and financial disincentives in the social security system.

Many people with disabilities want to work but the system is not designed to help them in its current form. Unfortunately the disability pension is still widely regarded as “the end of the line” for people’s career prospects. This is unfair and a waste of human resources.

Rise or reality?

Several commentators bemoan the increasing number of people receiving the disability support pension as though this is evidence that it is too easy to get. There are several causes for the doubling of the number of DSP recipients over the past 15 years.


First, whereas once a disability like a mental illness may not have been declared now it is increasingly recognised. The ABS estimates that the number of Australians of workforce age with a "core activity restriction" rose from 1.2 million in 1988 to 1.5 million in 1998. Improved identification of disabilities such as mental illness and lower mortality rates after accidents account for this increase. The strongest growth was in severe and profound disabilities.

The second reason for the climb in DSP recipients is due to changes in the welfare system and closure of other payments. The fastest growing category of DSP recipients is not older men but mature aged women. The closure of payments such as the Wife Pension, Widow's Pension and the Age Pension for women 60-65 years old means that more women with disabilities applied for the DSP.

Finally, the labour market and employers hold part of the responsibility for the increase in DSP recipients. The decline in the number of low-skilled full time jobs and lack of employer support for people with disabilities is a key factor in rising DSP numbers. In the 1990s, all growth in fulltime permanent jobs was in higher skilled employment when people with disabilities on average have a low level of skills.

Narrow or reasonable view?

Despite what you may hear in coming months as those urging reform of the Disability Support Pension argue against those urging cutbacks, the DSP is a vital payment to people with disabilities. Any family with a person with a disability will tell you the facts are that most care for people with disabilities is provided by the family and the DSP is modest in covering a person’s cost of living.

When presented with both sides of the DSP debate, most Australians do not support a tough approach to people on DSP. A recent survey found that half felt it was reasonable to ask DSP recipients to retrain, participate in their community or improve their literacy skills but two thirds did not support requirements for people with disabilities to look for work: 75 per cent did not support requirements for people with disabilities to participate in Work for the Dole.

Most Australians have realistic expectations about the workforce participation of people with disabilities - they, like people with disabilities themselves, want people to work if it is possible to do so. Let’s hope this more reasoned view prevails over the idea that anything can be achieved by the Government putting up any more hurdles for people with disabilities to jump.

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About the Author

Andrew McCallum is president of the Australian Council of Social Services.

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