Don’t let Australians fall through the cracks
Imagine if there was a minority group in society that was less likely to finish school, less likely to get a job, was paid less on average, and faced a level of unthinking prejudice that meant they were not even able to enter some shops and public buildings.
That minority exists. They are the 800,000 Australians under 65 with a physical or intellectual disability. The lives they lead are shaped by both the misunderstandings of the general community, and the chronic lack of services and support they face.
Things are better than they were, we’ve moved away from the days of institutionalisation and there are now more options for people with disability.
But there is still a lack of support. There’s not enough help in schools for kids with disability, or to help them get into jobs once they leave school. There’s not enough specialised accommodation for people with severe disabilities.
I am one of millions of Australians whose has a close connection with someone with a disability, and is aware of just how hard it is for people with disability to live a life of freedom and dignity.
My sister Honora has an intellectual disability. To us, she’s just one of the family, with her likes and dislikes and loving personality. But other people often react to her with fear or ignorance.
Her disability means that she needs support and supervision every day, and needs help to travel around and do the things that she loves doing.
If it was not for the support that our big family (I’m one of nine kids) was able to give her, I fear for what could have happened to her. Her life could have been lonely and unhappy, living on the margins of society.
Too many people with similar disabilities fall through the cracks because they don’t have supportive family or other carers. At the same time thousands of people give up their own careers and freedom to care for a relative with disability, performing thousands of dollars of unpaid work out of love.
This has been the case for years, and I think there is a feeling in the community that it is somehow inevitable. That there’s no way to provide a better deal for people with disability, that elderly carers will always be required to give so much of themselves with no guarantee of what will happen to their child when they can no longer care for him or her.
This is not the case. In the last few years there has been a strong move towards the idea of a disability insurance scheme – an idea which could provide early intervention, and guaranteed support for people with disability, taking the burden off carers.
Next Monday the Productivity Commission will deliver its final report into a disability insurance scheme. But based on a preliminary report in February, it will recommend to the Government that such a scheme is feasible, and could even save money in the long term.
When the economists at the Productivity Commission tell us it’s the way to go, we should all listen. They are not bleeding hearts, they are the people with the expertise to sort out how an insurance scheme could run.
How might such a scheme work?
One of the keys would be early intervention. A child diagnosed with autism or Down Syndrome would start to get support and therapy as early as soon as they are diagnosed, rather than going on a waiting list. Intervention early in a child’s life means they will do better at school, and have a better chance of getting a job rather than spending a life on the Disability Support Pension.
Another would be centralising services. At the moment disability services are a mix of programs run by Federal and State Governments or private groups. There’s a lot of gaps and duplication, as well as a lot of confusion about what is available. This causes needless heartache for parents already trying to come to grips with their child’s condition.
The key would be that an insurance scheme delivers services as a matter of right, and delivers based on need.
At the moment a person injured in a car accident will get a better level of service through the State compensation scheme, and get it quicker, than someone who gets the same kind of injury through an accident at home, or who is born with a disability.
Providing better care and services will cost money, and that money has to come from somewhere.
But what gets forgotten is that we are already spending money on services in an inefficient way, and that we are spending over $10 billion each year on the disability support pension.
If early intervention and support means we can get more people with disability into the workforce then not only will they be better off, we all will be.
The Federal Government has shown some support for the idea, former Parliamentary Secretary Bill Shorten and Disability Minister Jenny Macklin pushed hard for the PC inquiry.
Encouragingly, this has been echoed by the Opposition, whose bipartisan support recognises the overwhelming need for change. An insurance scheme may be the only government initiative Tony Abbott supports.
But we should not take for granted that it will happen. There are always competing priorities in politics, and money is always scarce. Unless the broader community, especially people like myself who have a personal experience with disability, make a noise then nothing will happen.
So get out there and write to your MP, or visit the Every Australian Counts website for more information about why we need a disability insurance scheme. It could be in your own interest, after all, accidents can happen to anyone, and there is always a chance that you, your child or grand-child could need it.
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