Blind Citizens Australia Submission to the Australian Government Pension Review, 2008
National Policy Officer
Blind Citizens Australia
Level 3, Ross House
247 – 251 Flinders Lane
MELBOURNE VIC 3000
Phone: 03 9654 1400
ABOUT BLIND CITIZENS AUSTRALIA
Blind Citizens Australia (BCA) is the peak national advocacy organisation of and for people who are blind or vision impaired. Our mission is to achieve equity and equality by our empowerment, by promoting positive community attitudes, and by striving for high quality and accessible services which meet our needs. As the national advocacy peak body we have over 3000
individual members, branches nationwide and 13
affiliate organisations that represent the interests of blind or vision impaired Australians.
Disability Support Pension (DSP), DSP – Blind and Old Age
Pension (OAP) – Blind are critical resources for Australians who are blind or vision impaired. For the 63% of working age people who are blind or vision impaired and either unemployed or underemployed, the Disability Support Pension (DSP) is their primary source of income support, and should be critical to their participation in society through jobseeking, voluntary work, part time paid work or recreation and leisure activities. Given the high rates of unemployment and underemployment in working age people who are blind or vision impaired, it is reasonable to expect that older Australians in this category may not have significant assets or superannuation funds, especially if they have been blind or vision impaired for a significant period of their working life. For these people the pension should provide a decent standard of living in terms of housing, everyday costs and the ability to build ongoing savings.
Although these are the desired goals of pensions and benefits for people who are blind or vision impaired in
Australia, the actual outcomes are unfortunately falling short of the standard we expect in a fair and inclusive society. People who are blind or vision impaired experience issues which fall into several key categories. These are:
Decent Standard of Living: People who are blind or vision
impaired cannot have a decent standard of living on current rates of pension without dependence on either full-time work or assistance from family or social services. „Decent standard of living‟ includes the ability to meet everyday costs and still save for emergencies, holidays and some „luxury‟ items like an outing with friends.
Cost of disability: Meeting the specific needs of a person
who is blind or vision impaired is often impossible on current rates of pension. There are many costs associated with making sure a person with a disability can function well in society and these are either not subsidised at all or they are subsidised poorly.
Inequitable Systems of Payment: Different rates of pension
and different requirements for compliance with Centrelink are applied based on a person‟s relationship status, level of
vision loss and/or ability to work. This creates an inequitable system where some are poorer than others purely by virtue of their circumstances.
Confusing and Inaccessible Information Provision: For
people who are blind or vision impaired, access to information is a constant issue. When it comes to the payment of pensions and benefits an inability to get clear and consistent information or to readily access forms independently can lead to financial problems for pension recipients.
Lack of Appropriate or Well Coordinated Supports: Many
people who are blind or vision impaired rely on other supports such as public housing or the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to help them meet critical everyday needs. Unfortunately, these schemes either do not provide enough assistance or provide assistance which diminishes as a person‟s income increases.
For the Pension Review to lead to genuine improvements for people who are blind or vision impaired, all of the above areas need to be considered in depth.
Decent Standard of Living
“I live on the DSP – Blind, Mobility Allowance, Rent
Assistance and the allowances for utilities and the internet. It’s hard to do everyday things on that amount. I’ve had to move to a more rural area so I can afford to rent privately, but that sends up my transport costs to get to uni. Forget being able to save for big things or luxuries. I can’t afford to pay for big pieces of furniture, and there’s no way I could go and visit my family who live in another state. It’s so isolating.”
- Megan, 23, South Australia
Finding a clearly agreed-upon definition of poverty is difficult. Some argue that poverty should be measured by level of income alone, while others suggest that the experience of poverty should be considered in comparison to the experiences of other people living in the same country or area. In general, it is agreed that at least approximately 10% of Australians are living in poverty and that poverty rates are higher in rural and regional areas (Australian Parliamentary Library 2005, McClure 2002, ACOSS 2007).
The variety of opinions about poverty and disadvantage makes it tricky to say exactly how many people who are blind or vision impaired are impoverished and exactly what should be measured to show improvement in the situation.
Comparisons by Income
Although there is a lack of data about disability and poverty, Saunders (2005) stated that, overall, people with disabilities live in households with 14.9% less income than those households where disability is not present. Taking into account the varying definitions of a „poverty line‟ as a percentage of median income, he notes that:
“… the [Australian] welfare system provides a
comprehensive but modest income safety net that protects most people from extreme income poverty, but income from other sources (primarily earnings) have an increasing impact as the poverty line is shifted up the income distribution.”
In other words, if the benchmark for the poverty line is set at forty or fifty per cent of median income, the number of people at risk of poverty is smaller because welfare payments protect them. If society says that anyone living on less than sixty per cent of median income is in poverty, people need to have a wage coming in to pull away from the poverty level.
There is evidence to suggest that people who are blind or vision impaired earn less and, as the following section of this submission outlines, have higher costs of living than the average population. In February 2007, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that the male total average weekly earnings (MTAWE) were $1200.03. The 2007 Vision
Australia employment report found that 38.8% of people who are blind or vision impaired have an income of $249 a week or less, which is just over 20 per cent of MTAWE and below the 25% benchmark set for Australian pensions. A further 27.1% live on between $250 - $399 per week, or between a fifth and a third of MTAWE. Only 10.9% of the blind or vision impaired population are earning over $1,000 a week, bringing them close to or above the 2007 MTAWE level.
The Vision Australia survey found that 37% of the blind or vision impaired population of working age and inclination is employed. Given Saunders‟ statement regarding the relative importance of wages if we accept that poverty begins at a higher standard of living, the lower levels of employment and average income are particularly strong indicators that people who are blind or vision impaired often experience hardship and disadvantage, if not poverty.
Among those who work, government support is not seen as a great contributor to their financial status. Although we can see from the figures above that the incomes of people who are blind or vision impaired are demonstrably lower than those for the overall Australian population, 71.7% of those employed people surveyed by Vision Australia cited their wages as their main source of income. This suggests that for those people who are blind or vision impaired who are in work benefits and pensions are considered supplementary or are not taken up at all.
Comparisons by Quality of Life
For many people with disabilities, daily life is a struggle. A 2007 report from the Social Policy Research Centre found that people with disabilities are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to measures of hardship such as going
without meals, an inability to buy brand new clothes or an inability to pay bills on time.
While there is no empirical evidence which looks at the extent to which people who are blind or vision impaired face these day-to-day hardships, anecdotal evidence suggests that these are not out of the ordinary experiences.
Recommendation 1: That the Australian government examine ways to consistently monitor poverty over time in terms of both income and living standards, taking into account the extra burdens placed on people with disabilities.
Recommendation 2: That the Australian government examine an appropriate raise to pensions and benefits for people with disabilities to improve their standard of living.
Recommendation 3: That the Australian government ensure regular reviews of the rates and delivery of pensions and benefits are undertaken to allow for changes in both economic circumstances and
community standards regarding poverty.
Recommendation 4: That the Australian government consider the introduction of a loans system to help pensioners pay for large cost or emergency items without further becoming disadvantaged.
Cost of Disability
“Because I have a mobility disability as well as my vision loss, I have to pay for so many extra things. I pay for taxis to get to and from the station to get into the city so I can
volunteer, and I also have to pay for the upkeep of my mobility scooter, which I use to get to the local shops and visit my family. It’s broken at the moment so I’ve been paying
more for taxi fares to get around the local area, and I’ll have to find $100 just to replace a single spring in the scooter itself. I don’t know where the money will come from.”
- Jenny, 45, New South Wales
People who are blind or vision impaired face a number of extra costs related to their disability. Several years ago, Blind Citizens Australia undertook a study to examine the non-optional costs of blindness. It found that these costs can include:
- The costs of paying for home maintenance and repairs
which a sighted person would do themselves;
- The costs of travel and mobility, including upkeep of a
dog guide or paying for taxi trips;
- The costs of buying and maintaining adaptive
technology, including software licences for speech
output screen readers (approximately $1,000), Braille
note-taking devices (approximately $7,000), mobile
phones capable of speech output (approximately $800)
and closed circuit televisions to enlarge printed
documents (approximately $2,000);
- The costs of living in an area with good infrastructure
such as public transport, schools and shops because
you can‟t drive;
- The costs of information support, such as paying extra
for an audio book rather than a print version;
- The costs of paying for medications and medical
equipment which is not subsidised, such as some eye
drops, sunglasses and contact lenses;
- The „invisible‟ cost of lost employment opportunities.
According to the study, transport and adaptive equipment were the most pressing costs for people who are blind or vision impaired. In all areas there were high levels of met needs (items able to be paid for) and unmet needs (things which are not done or purchased because they cannot be afforded).
Some of these costs, like higher housing rental and home maintenance, are related closely to a decent standard of living. The economic and social benefits of a decent standard of living are often indirect. People may experience greater health and wellbeing, meaning that they rely less on our medical and social service systems and have a greater ability to participate in society.
Other costs come about because a person who is blind or vision impaired wants to participate in the community. The non-optional costs of blindness study found that people who participated in society through paid or voluntary work or through raising children had higher costs than those who did not.
Those who receive government benefits in addition to working spent more money on meeting their blindness related costs. People who were reliant on government pensions alone had a higher level of unmet need.
Additionally, the study found that people who are blind or vision impaired do not necessarily pay for the things they need on a fortnightly basis. For example, a person might pay for groceries on a weekly basis, cleaning and gardening on a fortnightly basis, rent every month and utility bills every quarter. They may also have large one-off costs such as repairing adaptive equipment.
Both the McClure Report (2003) and the Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into disability and employment (2006) recommend the introduction of a simpler welfare system, with generic cost of disability and cost of participation allowances to cover the unmet needs of people with disabilities in meeting their general standards of living and their extra requirements for participation. BCA fully supports this model, with the caveat that any changes to the current regime of payments are made after careful consultation on a specific model.
In addition, the Commission‟s inquiry recommended:
- A raise in the rate of Mobility Allowance to cover getting
to and from work;
- The extension of health care concessions to cover
those people with disabilities who enter the workforce,
- Research into better coordination and coverage of the
transport-related costs faced by people with disabilities.
Recommendation 5: That the government consider the introduction of a generic welfare payment as per the McClure Report, and that Cost of Disability and Cost of Participation Allowances be introduced in addition to the generic allowance.
Recommendation 6: That the Australian government offers flexible payment arrangements to people
receiving government assistance so that they can cover weekly, monthly, quarterly and emergency costs