First Peoples Disability Network (FPDN) gave evidence to the Senate Community Affairs inquiry into the purpose, intent and adequacy of the Disability Support Pension (DSP).

FPDN CEO Damian Griffis and Deputy CEO June Riemer presented a range of key recommendations for the initiative which would improve its applicability to those within the Indigenous community who live with disabilities.

The recommendations included a review of income levels and costs for those with disabilities and the removal of barriers such as a lack of information, outreach, support and faster application timeframes.

“We know that the vast majority of First People with disability live in poverty, particularly those living in regional and remote Australia,” Griffis told the National Indigenous Times.

“The level of Disability Support Pension is inadequate to meet regular costs of living, including the extra costs associated with disability, and there are significant barriers to accessing the DSP.”

He remarked that the FPDN has found “little support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability” within the DSP application process which leads to many who end up “missing out on essential support they are entitled to”.

“The work that FPDN advocates are doing reinforces the urgency of increased investment in individual advocacy for First People with disability that can work directly with people to connect them with services and supports,” he said.

A spokesperson for Senator Anne Ruston, Minister for Family and Social Services, spoke to the National Indigenous Times on this issue.

“The Government is mindful of the unique challenges facing Indigenous people living in rural and remote areas,” they said.

“Services Australia can apply special provisions including the use of specialist assessments and provisional diagnoses to support for Indigenous Australians in remote communities who have limited access to mainstream health services.”

The spokesperson evidenced the changes the Government introduced to the DSP assessment process in 2015 “and since that time we have seen a vast reduction in differences in grant rates between metropolitan, regional and remote communities”.

This grant rate now sits at 35 per cent in regional areas, compared with 33 per cent in metropolitan areas, according to data provided by Minister Ruston’s office.

“An independent evaluation of the assessment changes conducted by Health Outcomes International found that “post implementation granting rates were in a narrow range, in contrast, before implementation, a much broader range was evident”,” the spokesperson said.

Shadow Minister for Family and Social Services, as well as for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney said the “solution to overcoming of the issues of accessing the Disability Support Pension is for Government to work with community organisations at a local level to make sure that people who are eligible for DSP can access it”.

“It is unacceptable that people are missing out on the support they need because government has cut services delivery in many regions and has a deliberate attitude of hindering people with disability’s access to the DSP rather than supporting First Nations people to access the payment when they are eligible,” she said.

Greens Health spokesperson, Senator Jordan Steele-John emphasised his party’s support of the FPDN’s recommendations.

“Disabled First Nations peoples experience significant access barriers to supports and services. There are systemic issues with the design of the DSP, its eligibility criteria, and assessments,” he said.

Steele-John recognised the need for “culturally safe services” and that “compounding factors such as language and cultural barriers, remoteness, and limited support” are just some of the issues with the DSP.

The Greens wish to see decision-making power with First Nations peoples and want “a co-designed access process and greater resourcing for First Nations controlled and run disability advocacy services”.

Greens Senator Janet Rice, who chaired the Inquiry hearing said that she “was really moved by the evidence given by First Nations peoples at the Inquiry; and disturbed to hear the first hand evidence about how huge the barriers currently are in accessing the DSP”.

“It was particularly upsetting to hear from First Nations deaf people about them being denied interpreters; and  to hear of the culturally inappropriate services overall and lack of privacy experienced by First Nations people in applying for the DSP.”

By Aaron Bloch