A quarter of the country’s disabled population lives in poverty, while 42% of applications for disability allowance made in 2018 were rejected. It’s unacceptable, writes Joan O’Donnell.
More than 140,000 people in Ireland now live on a disability allowance, equivalent to the entire population of Wicklow. These numbers are rising year on year, even though it is extremely tough to qualify and it almost guarantees a life of poverty.
Take Michelle from Cork, who was turned down four times for disability allowance, despite being unable to walk, all because of her age.
She says: “it’s not like I could tell my spine, sorry, you can’t fall apart because you are too young. I could honestly have killed myself with the stress. I cried constantly, I hope to never, ever have to repeat anything like it. In 11 months, I had seven medical assessments.
"Not being believed was one of the hardest things. It took 16 months in total to get disability allowance — it was so cruel. On my last ever assessment the lady doctor was actually horrified I had been turned down so often, she said she would fix everything, and she did.”
Michelle is just one of the 39,000 people who have no choice but to go through the hoops of applying for a social welfare payment that is means-tested. She is one of many habitually turned down on their first application.
A quarter of the country’s disabled population lives in poverty. They often struggle to make ends meet or afford basic items. You could say we are lucky to live in a country where there is no fixed quota for the number of people on disability allowance. This means that if you need it, you should get it.
So how is it that less than a year after Ireland signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities guaranteeing people the right to social protection, so many find themselves with no other option but to go through the arduous application process and added stress of being turned down when they first apply?
The Department of Employment and Social Protection turned down 42% of all applications made in 2018, more than the rate of refusal in 2017.
At a time when people are at their most fragile — coming to terms with a new diagnosis or a deterioration in a chronic condition or suddenly having to give up work — they are faced with additional stress, delays, and uncertainty about being able to eat and pay rent or mortgage.
Pat from Donegal, who lives with chronic pain after an accident, says: “I just know that I just didn’t have the energy to keep phoning or sending emails.
The department turned down over 12,500 applications for disability allowance in 2017. They made a decision on 4,468 appeals over the course of the same year and 70% of the people who appealed then got their payment.
Ministers have continuously assured us we will not move towards the UK model of people having to prove they are “unfit for work”.
This model has led to the deaths of 2,380 people between 2011 and 2014 alone. People cannot survive on nothing. Life becomes impossible, death inevitable.
On the surface of things we have a robust social welfare system. When we scratch that surface, though, we discover many people are suffering not because of their disability, but due to inhumane systems.
Where have the thousands of people who were turned down gone? And what kind of quality of life can people who have secured disability allowance come to expect?
Ireland has committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals: The first goal is to end poverty. Recent discussion on these goals in Dublin Castle was loaded towards climate action at the expense of the goal to end poverty.
It seems hard to talk about more than one thing at a time, but this is no reason not to work towards creating a quality of life for everyone on this planet.
We are also expecting a new national social inclusion strategy which will set out the Government’s overarching commitment to tackling poverty and social inclusion. The last strategy ran out in 2017 and the poverty reduction targets were not reached.
Even though this is a cross-government strategy, it sits within the Department of Employment and Social Protection. It must compete for space with departments whose agendas trump any attempts to put social goals at the top of this Government’s agenda.
This is a country with 5.3% unemployment, while people with disabilities leave our workplaces in droves and young people with disabilities struggle to get a start.
More than half of people with disabilities on disability allowance would be interested in working or furthering their education.
Some 11% of people in receipt of the allowance are in some kind of part-time work already. That leaves 60,000 people who are left with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Employment supports for people with disabilities sit within the Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities, which works on the supply side of ensuring people who want to work are supported to do so.
This strategy is the responsibility of the Department of Justice which sits quite far away from the main business of job creation.
Job supply is managed by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation. People with disabilities are being left out of the conversation about the Future of Work, and the rich opportunities digital era brings.
Funding for the Employer Disability Information Service that supported employers to take on people with disabilities came to an end in December.
Fergus Finlay, chair of the strategy, admits a lack of progress “demonstrate(s) ongoing inequality and discrimination. We will fail to address that discrimination if we continue to fail to get education right, to get services right, to get the infrastructure around employment right, and to get attitudes right”.
We need a whole-of-government approach to address the systemic discrimination experienced by people with disabilities in accessing their rights — including their right to a basic income.
And more than ever, we need to introduce cost-effective and efficient administrative systems. Because people’s lives are complex.
And for people with disabilities who are dependent on the co-ordinated effort of multiple departments, it is even more complex.
Right now, too many people are falling through the cracks: Cracks created by siloed working practices and inefficiencies.
We have a sinkhole — it’s the size of Co Wicklow and it’s growing.
Joan O’Donnell is the development manager at Disability Federation of Ireland