Catherine's law removes just one barrier facing people with disabilities

Ireland has one of the lowest employment rates for people with disabilities in the EU
Catherine's law removes just one barrier facing people with disabilities

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar recently stated that the new law on remote working would allow people with disabilities to participate in the workforce at a higher rate than previously. 

Following on from the welcome introduction of ‘Catherine’s Law’, the wider systemic barriers, which do not allow many people with disabilities to participate in any form of work or without losing a significant portion of their disability payment need to be highlighted.

This problem has been ongoing for many years and has been brought at parliamentary level on several occasions and through various reports. These rules are disabling and not allowing people to 'play to their strengths'.

The right to participate in work is a core human right under Article 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights for Persons with Disabilities.

However, it is clear that Ireland is failing to meet its obligations as evidenced by the recent European Commission country report, which revealed that Ireland has one of the lowest employment rates for people with disabilities in the EU (26.2 % compared to 48.1 % in the EU in 2017).

Ireland also has one of the highest gaps between people with and without disabilities (45.1 percentage points) in employment. This has resulted in social exclusion and poverty for many.

The State's failure to meet its obligation in this area and the barriers to participating in employment due to the rules on many disability payments will be included in the impending Shadow Report on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities where the Irish State will be held to account.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar recently stated that the new law on remote working would allow people with disabilities to participate in the workforce at a higher rate than previously.

'New opportunities'

"A shift away from office-based working will open up new job opportunities for people who want to live in rural Ireland, people with disabilities and people with caring responsibilities."

However, this is not possible under the existing rules, which do not allow people with disabilities to engage in any form of employment (part-time, casual, temporary, self-employment, remote or other) without potential loss to their basic income of €203 per week unless they earn €120 or less p/w on certain disability payments such as Disability Allowance* and Blind Pension.

This exemption does not apply to many other disability payments such as invalidity pension (58,168 people on invalidity pension) and illness benefit (49,313 people on illness benefit). Previous to 2013, people were allowed to work up to 20 hours p/w for therapeutic/recovery purposes before their disability payment was affected. 

While the changes to the disability allowance payment in 2018 were a welcome development, the nominal figure of €120 p/w (due to increase to €140 in June 2021) creates a barrier to participation as it does not allow people to earn anywhere near the average industrial wage of €844.98 p/w before their disability payment is affected. This sinks people further into the poverty trap. The risk of poverty rate for people with disabilities in Ireland is 37 per cent, 10 per cent above the EU average.

The risks are too great for people in often precarious health situations, many of whom are already living below the poverty line and have significant additional long term healthcare costs.

The additional costs of having a disability/illness remain even if the person participates in any form of employment.

The system does not consider the ongoing cost of having a long-term disability regardless of whether the person is able to engage in any form of work.

(In response to this statement, the Department of Social Protection said: "The means test for Disability Allowance is unique in the social welfare system in that recipients may have savings or other capital assets up to a value of €50,000 without their payment being affected. For most other social assistance payments, the limit is €20,000. This allows recipients of Disability Allowance to maintain levels of higher reserves in recognition of the additional costs they may incur because of their disability.") 

Under current rules, the maximum a person can earn if they are working on disability allowance is €323 p/w, which is below the €350 p/w that is considered a basic liveable income for those on the PUP (Pandemic Unemployment Payment). People on other disability payments (invalidity pension, illness benefit) incur loss to the basic €203 p/w if they engage in employment.

This serves to push people with disabilities into poverty and social exclusion and marginalise an already vulnerable group with complex healthcare needs.

These rules urgently needed to be changed to support people to participate and reduce further social exclusion. The laws on remote working, and the regulations regarding PhD scholarship payment were changed in a short period, so these rules can be changed quickly if the political will exists to allow people to participate without any cost to the Government.

The barriers for many people with disabilities to participating in any form of work without loss of basic income required to live with a disability has meant that many people with disabilities have not been able to avail of opportunities to transition into part-time or temporary or casual employment and become valued members of our society on an equal basis with others.

These ‘ableist’ rules have resulted in further disablement and discrimination. By not allowing people with disabilities to 'play to their strengths' we are losing out on the valuable contribution people with disabilities can make to Irish society.

Dr Fiona Morrissey is a disability advocate

* The Disability Allowance, which is received by about 147,000 of Ireland's 643,131 people with disabilities - is means-tested. People with disabilities who are in receipt of Disability Allowance can earn up to €120 per week without that affecting their payment. A further 50% of any earnings between €120 and €350 are disregarded in a means test. All earnings over €350 per week are assessed for the purposes of the means test. In Budget 2021, Minister Humphreys in Budget 2021 said the €120 threshold will be increased from June 2021 to €140 per week.

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