Complexity in Social Security Applications is Deliberate and Harmful

I first seriously investigated applying for the Disability Support Pension in late 2015, and got my first letter from a doctor for that purpose in November of that year. I was already three years into my law degree at this point with a perfectly respectable resume and plenty of valuable skills, but despite quitting part time work the previous year my studies and volunteering were becoming harder and harder to maintain.

Nevertheless, my education put me at a profound advantage in applying. Over that three-month university summer break I set myself the task of researching the DSP. What did “fully diagnosed, treated and stabilised” mean? How did the Department assess functional capacity? Was I likely to “pass” these tests?

The answer to how functional capacity is assessed is relatively simple (at least to someone used to reading legislative and quasi-legislative materials) thanks to a 65 page document called “Social Security (Tables for the Assessment of Work-related Impairment for Disability Support Pension) Determination 2011”. This document sets out fifteen categories of function:

  1.  Functions requiring Physical Exertion and Stamina

  2. Upper Limb Function

  3. Lower Limb Function

  4. Spinal Function

  5. Mental Health Function

  6. Functioning related to Alcohol, Drug and Other Substance Use

  7. Brain Function

  8. Communication Function

  9. Intellectual Function

  10. Digestive and Reproductive Function

  11. Hearing and other Functions of the Ear

  12. Visual Function

  13. Continence Function

  14. Functions of the Skin

  15. Functions of Consciousness

To satisfy this part of the assessment process, an individual has to score a minimum of 20 points in any individual table. In other words, Person 1 could score 20 points (a severe functional impact) in a single table and be eligible, even while Person 2 who scores 150 points (15 moderate functional impacts) throughout the table is barred from accessing the DSP.

It would be a ridiculous system of calculation if it wasn’t so harmful. This method completely fails to consider and address multi-systemic conditions. Not only that, the tables themselves are almost a manifesto on the Medical Model of Disability. They fail to account for the fact that someone with a severe functional impact who has an employer and community who accommodates their disability well is likely to be far more capable of maintaining employment than someone with a moderate functional impact who cannot find an understanding (or even non-discriminatory) employer and has no community support.

For the purposes of my research, while it was frustrating that my multi-systemic condition wouldn’t be fully appreciated by this system, it was obvious that I was sufficiently impacted in a few categories that I would be able to comfortably satisfy the tables provided I collected all the required documentation from my doctors. I could pass this test.

What about being “fully diagnosed, treated and stabilised” though? This was a problem. In 2015 my diagnostic situation closely resembled a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. I had a few solid diagnoses, but certainly not enough to explain all my symptoms. My treatments had been pretty thorough, but there were still some boxes that my research said I should tick off to be safe (expensive boxes, like pain clinics and a psychiatrist to rule out psychosomatic pain). Stabilised was more confusing and harder to find clear advice on, but without a full diagnosis it wasn’t going to matter.

The process of jumping through all those hoops took me until the middle of 2017. I filled out my forms over a period of weeks (the DSP form alone is 32 pages), got my documentation together and finally lodged my application in September 2017. After more months waiting, attending phone interviews and in-person assessments, I was eventually approved. It was an acutely frustrating and chronically demoralising process that made me feel like a burden and an inconvenience at every stage.

Pause and consider that. This is a system so complex that it took me 22 months and thousands of dollars to compile an application I was confident in, then months longer to process it. If this is what applying for the DSP looks like for someone who graduated with a Bachelor of Laws (hons) in 2018 and had parents who could afford to pay for many of those critical medical appointments, what does it look like for the less privileged in our society?

I would guess that the lack of formal supports offered to those seeking to apply for the DSP directly results in many incorrectly rejected applicants left on payments like Newstart instead. It seems likely that some, too daunted by huge forms and complicated language, don’t even bother applying for the DSP at all.

Even for people like me who have the skills and resources to be able to compile and lodge the application by ourselves, it is a huge burden to bear.

The decline in number of people accessing the Disability Support Pension clearly demonstrates that successive governments’ policies to reduce reliance on the payment have been effectively implemented. With the application process near-impossible, a rejection rate of 70%, the assessment process convoluted and opaque, the threat of review constant, and the rate of payment sitting on the Australian poverty-line, it’s hard to see what is so supportive about this pension. It is certainly far from a genuine attempt to protect Australians unable to work due to disability from living in poverty.

Complexity in application processes for social security is at best, negligent policy implementation. In cases as egregious as this, it is hard to see it as anything other than a deliberate strategy in a suite of similar strategies to reduce government expenses. Pretending this complexity is an unintentional and unnoticed side-effect of rigorous and reasonable systems will only continue this harm to disabled Australians.