Means testing of the disability allowance is trapping people in a cycle of poverty with many fearing their supports could be removed, according to an advocacy group.
Amy Hassett and Maria Ní Fhlatharta, co-founders of Disabled Women Ireland, said the means test emerged as a major issue in a consultation carried out by the organisation. Many respondents are concerned their earnings would disqualify them from receiving the payment.
Ms Hassett said people can earn only €437.50 per week before their allowance is cut off. “If you are working roughly a 40-hour week, that’s around minimum wage.”
Nearly 147,000 people were in receipt of the allowance in 2019. And some €1.8 billion was provided in payments by the Department of Social Protection last year.
The department said recipients can earn up to €120 per week (rising to €140 this June) without their payment being affected, with half of weekly earnings between €120 and €350 being assessed.
Ms Ní Fhlatharta said many people with disabilities have to work in order to pay privately for supports such as personal-assistance hours.
Ms Hassett said “the disability tax” – the extra costs that disabled people face due to society’s inaccessibility – is a good reason why disabled people’s earning potential should not be capped.
Many respondents to the group’s consultation said they feared their medical cards could also be taken away due to their earnings.
“There are a lot of other services associated with medical cards, like prosthetics, equipment, wheelchairs,” said Ms Hassett. “Disability allowance often provides a pathway to getting a medical card.”
People on the allowance can also be called for a review of their eligibility. This can be the case “even if they have a life-long disability that is not going to change”, said Ms Ní Fhlatharta. “I know one person who was called for review three times by the time she was 22.”
Ms Hassett said she had to give the department an update in circumstances when she started a PhD programme. She said her situation should be resolved because of recently introduced legislation, which disregards PhD stipends as income, but that dealing with the issue had been extremely stressful. She had to get letters from her GP, orthopaedic surgeon, university and funding body.
“It took me three months to hear back from the department. My allowance was cut off before I heard anything,” she said. “You have 21 days to make an appeal from the date they issue your letter outlining why you were rejected. My letter didn’t arrive until 14 days after they issued it. I had seven days to gather all of my information for an appeal, and to get it posted.”
Ms Hassett added that the letters the department sends out are not written in plain language, which is another challenge for claimants.
“Not everyone who is applying to disability allowance has the [academic] background we have. Some people might have intellectual disabilities, or dyspraxia, dyslexia . . . how can people appeal when they don’t understand why they were rejected?”
The fact that a large number of appeals are granted was also a matter of concern, said Ms Hassett.
Lengthy decision letters
Figures released by the department show that during the first two months of this year more than half of appeals finalised (532 of 943) led to the allowance being granted either fully or partially. These figures include some appeals lodged last year. Some 64 per cent of appeals finalised last year (4,714 of 7,410) were granted or partially granted, including some lodged in 2019.
The department said appeals are often granted when more information is provided by the claimant as part of the process. It said social welfare legislation requires a means test to take account of the income and assets of the claimant and their partner.
The department added that all qualifying criteria for the allowance must be addressed in any decision letter, which means they can sometimes appear quite lengthy.
“The department aims to ensure that the reason for the decision is made as clear as possible and that the customer is made aware of the availability of an appeal process should they wish to appeal that decision,” it said, adding that the design, layout and wording used in decision letters is kept under review.