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An open letter to Julia re Dignity

Wednesday 20 April 2011

The Diss-Ability blog has written an open letter to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard about her recent comments regarding welfare recipients:


An open letter to Julia re Dignity

By Ken Davis
Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dear Prime Minister

I am so pleased you have rediscovered the “dignity of work”. I actually agree with you that it is important to help non-working people to work to their capacity – whatever that is. I think where we differ is on how to do that. Also, given the lack of detail and the abject failure of previous attempts at reform, I’m not convinced that your government has the knowledge or political will to do it either. So please allow me to offer you my ideas for what they are worth, as I believe I am amply qualified to offer advice in this area.

Firstly by training I am an Occupational Therapist with 25+ years experience in the workforce, so I have some knowledge, skills and experience in this area. Secondly I am a disabled person. I have had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for 20 years and despite my best efforts along with the pathetic non-efforts of the CES, DEN and JSA – I do work. I can work 15 hours per week on a sustainable basis. Attempts to extend this have not been sustainable. Thirdly, I have done additional training and recently completed my Masters in Counselling, which involved extra hours over four years. The impact has been a substantial worsening of my physical capacity and increased pain which is only now starting to abate some nine months later. I now also have a FEE-HELP debt I will probably never be able to repay. Fourthly – for the past nine years, I have worked with the disadvantaged community. I am presently providing mental health services under the Better Access to Mental Health program. Thankfully your government reversed its foolish plan which would have seen me once more unemployed. Hopefully you can see that I know what I am talking about here.

In planning a successful “dignity of work” program, there are many things you must consider. I know you have been told these things already. I’m just asking you to exchange populist rhetoric for listening to people who know the truth, because they live it every day.

For people with disabilities – the biggest problem is the unwillingness of employers to provide suitable, quality work which matches the disabled applicant’s abilities. Just ask the Productivity Commission. Quality part-time work is almost impossible to obtain. So people with disabilities are often faced with the prospect of low paid, low quality jobs that do not utilise their skills and productive capacity because employers think that people looking for part-time work are lazy, uncommitted or that their inability to be instantly available will somehow cripple the company. If they were employed to their capacity and well remunerated some could be independent of benefits, but most will never get this opportunity because of employer prejudice.

Many disabilities, like mine, along with musculoskeletal and mental health conditions require intermittent work – that is longer or more frequent rest breaks. Again, employees seeking these things are viewed negatively as lazy. Such opportunities are extremely rare. Asking for them at interview is a recipe for rejection. Attempting to negotiate them upon success is just as risky. I had a job offer withdrawn when I asked for a rearrangement of hours. That was with a Job Network Provider – the organisations skilled in “helping us”.

Regarding the long term unemployed – you are well aware of the literacy, numeracy and mental health issues. However your government seems to have little to offer beyond the usual literacy and numeracy programs that have already failed due to the failure to diagnose and treat unrecognised learning and mental health disorders. By the time these people hit the welfare system, they often have further problems with addictions which seem to travel hand in hand with these disorders.

People with mental health conditions are frequently undiagnosed or wrongly diagnosed and often symptoms of their conditions include a lack of insight and mistrust of the very people who could diagnose and help them. It is not shirking or non-compliance. It is a symptom, just like high blood sugar or blood pressure. Eighty percent of the people I work with report a history of childhood or adult trauma and abuse – often both. Even when they are undergoing treatment and have been diagnosed, their encounters with Centrelink and JSA are often traumatic. Foolish attempts at forcing compliance often re-traumatise them and are a barrier to therapists addressing their core problems. Inflexible policy aimed at enforcing compliance actually produces the opposite. Even when they can access suitable treatment (and BAMH has been a boon), program frameworks often limit the amount of treatment or time frame available, which again impacts most on those who are more disadvantaged and severely affected.

So please allow me the indulgence of making a few suggestions that might address these realities.

  1. Apply both the carrot and the stick to employers. Offer them incentives to employ disabled people and to employ people part-time. Offer a tax break to all companies that achieve a specific target. Start with Federal and State Government agencies. If you really believe this works – start doing it and lead by example. Use tax penalties for medium to large enterprises that fail to achieve targets for employing disabled or long-term unemployed workers.
  2. Use carrots for the unemployed. Since DSP is so luxurious – offer the unemployed the benefits of DSP as long as they are engaged in meaningful efforts to improve their work prospects. That removes the incentive to “get on DSP” by “proving disability”. If education, training and treatment really improve employment outcomes – this will save money in the medium-term. Trying to live on NSA is enough stick for anyone. Allow people on benefits to experience reward for effort (rather than just the avoidance of penalty).
  3. Allow all people with temporary or uncertain disability the same conditions as (2) – although for temporary or uncertain disability the emphasis will be more on assessment and treatment.
  4. Provide generous resources so that people with disabilities can access assessment and treatment IMMEDIATELY. Even when services are available, long waiting lists and gap fees often exclude those most in need from accessing the needed assessment and treatment.
  5. Revise the funding model to provide benefits to JSA’s who employ highly skilled and qualified caseworkers and pay them commensurately with their skills. Allow them to provide appropriate therapeutic services for mental health and substance issues when there are limited or inadequate local services available.
  6. Fund or develop enterprises along a “work co-operative” model in order to provide skilled, flexible work for people with disabilities. Give those enterprises a good chance of success by feeding them a steady supply of outsourced government contract work. This type of enterprise would be highly suited for those with intermittent work requirements as work could be pooled. Such enterprises should also be more open to teleworking – again highly suited to those requiring intermittent work. One possible work such enterprises could be contracted to do is the monitoring of target and incentive programs mentioned above. Allow the disabled to apply the stick to recalcitrant, social responsibility avoiding employers.
  7. If a person with or with or without a disability has been unable despite their best efforts to obtain suitable employment within two years, then exempt them from explicit paid employment seeking if they are willing to engage in the equivalent voluntary work or community service.
  8. Exempt clients with suspected serious mental disability from compliance requirements without the burden of immediate proof. Offer them the same incentives as (2). Allow GP’s, mental health workers or carers to report such concerns. Fund Centrelink or JSA’s to provide outreach workers whose task it is to seek to engage, case-manage and refer such clients. Give such caseworkers the power to make decisions, without prejudice or financial incentive regarding compliance or exemption measures.
  9. No one should be compelled to undertake Work for the Dole for less than the minimum wage equivalent.
  10. Reform the basket cases that are Centrelink and DOCS. Make the form letters readable, human and compassionate. Only employ staff in “contact” positions with well developed people skills. Do not penalise customers for their inability to comprehend Centrelink requirements when staff at all levels seem to be unable to do so consistently.
  11. Broaden the range of treatments available under Medicare or case management for mental health conditions – particularly for trauma, PTSD and personality disorders.

If you do this, you will have the beginnings of a compassionate, responsive welfare system that respects and develops the dignity of the disabled and disadvantaged. I thought that was what the Labor Party stood for?

I would be interested in meeting with you or a representative to discuss these measures. However given that you have already been told this by Anglicare, NCOSS, The Brotherhood of St Lawrence, St Vincent De Paul and many others, I’m frankly not optimistic.

I could even be part of your solution if you are willing to employ a disabled person for 15 hours per week who requires some flexibility. What I actually expect is that I and many others like me will be whipped, penalised and subjected to even worse poverty by a government that pretends to care about the dignity of work.

Please prove me wrong.

Ken Davis


The article originally appeared here.



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