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Is our retirement system meeting people with disabilities’ needs?

Is our retirement system meeting people with disabilities’ needs?

People with intellectual disabilities face more barriers to employment, and if they get a job, possibly below-minimum wages, so naturally, retirement outcomes vary.

According to professor of intellectual disability at the University of Sydney’s Centre for Disability Research and Policy Roger Stancliffe, people with intellectual disabilities are placed – to some degree – “out of sight, out of mind”.

Speaking to Nest Egg, he said that this cohort is generally poorer, thanks to lower incoming costs and higher outgoing costs due to care costs.

However, working capacity is not a foregone conclusion, he urged.  


“It's true that people with disability generally, including people with intellectual disability, participate in the work force vastly less than the general community,” he said.

“It's an enormous difference. Not only in terms of whether or not they have a job and even for those who do have a job, the hours they work or the level on the sort of career ladder that they reach.

“Every one of those is fixed and often disadvantaged, and the reason why is complicated.”

Mr Stancliffe said the barriers include employers, family and even people with disabilities themselves.

“The status quo is so poor, people start to internalise, wrongly in my view, that they can't work or they can't complete [the work]. It's really a question of support and adaptations to enable them to work, but without denying their disability.”

He said disability employment services like Jobsupport, which focuses on people with intellectual disabilities, can go some of the way in normalising disability and integrating people with intellectual disabilities into workplaces and, subsequently, society.

Continuing, he said it’s important that people with intellectual disabilities have the opportunity for employment, while acknowledging historic beliefs that by working, people with disability would run the risk of a lower disability support pension.

As it stands, people with disability can earn up to $1,909.80 a fortnight, or $49,654.80 a year before their DSP is cut off.

However, for every dollar earned over $162 a fortnight, the DSP is reduced by 50 cents. This means working people with disabilities can earn up to $4,212.00 a year before their DSP is affected.

Mr Stancliffe referred to a 2012 report in the Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, which studied older workers with intellectual disabilities in supported employment.

The report’s authors, Shannon McDermott and Robyn Edwards, said, “Of the nine Australian Disability Enterprises at which interviews with people with disability took place, only two paid into superannuation (retirement accounts) to all workers regardless of wage.

“The majority of the people with disability interviewed received wages below $450 per month, which is the benchmark at which employers are mandated to make a 9 per cent contribution to retirement savings on behalf of employees.

“Thus, the majority of workers interviewed will retire with no superannuation even though they have worked for most of their lives.”

About 20,000 Australians with disability work in the Australian Disability Enterprises sector, Mr Stancliffe said. Most of these workplaces will be factories where most or all workers have a disability, and historically, the workers were “very poorly” paid.

These days, the workers receive a portion of the relevant award depending upon productivity within the Supported Wage System.

“Obviously, there's a direct relationship between your income and the amount of superannuation that goes into your superannuation account.

“People in mainstream employment with disability do better than those in sheltered employment [now known as the Australian Disability Enterprises], but the overall picture is that, overwhelmingly, people with disability are poor,” Mr Stancliffe said.

This isn’t just a financial issue, he added. The ability to earn, have and spend money is “hugely important” when it comes to a sense of independence.

“I know quite a number of people with intellectual disability who do that. As well as the pay packet, they get a real sense of meaning out of being an important member of the workforce where they're working.

“This is a win-win situation in that the person with the disability does well, and the employer gets a good employee. These are people who want to come to work every day, who do their work and can be relied on to do it.”

Part of the challenge is that while people with intellectual disabilities often want to stay in the workplace longer, as with retirement comes potential isolation and loss of support, as La Trobe University’s Professor Christine Bigby has also noted, the matter of assisting them to work and later retire is a newer development.

Mr Stancliffe explained that people with intellectual disabilities, like most Australians, are living longer than they have in the past.

With the Centre for Disability Research and Policy, Mr Stancliffe said he has set up a number of pilot projects that assist people with intellectual disabilities and employers in integration these workers into the workforce.

“They haven't been taken up in a widespread way across the system. It's still a little bit the luck of the draw as to what opportunities you may have available for you in retirement just depending on which disability support services you're in touch with and whether or not they offer some kind of retirement program,” he said.

Mr Stancliffe said that due to the challenges for people with intellectual disabilities in accessing work in the first place, all of the subsequent retirement issues have “been accorded a lower priority”.

“It continues to be a very significant challenge for people to get a job and keep it,” he said.

In a 2017 paper, Retirement Savings and Decisions to Retire by People with Intellectual Disability, Mr Stancliffe noted that while many people in this group manage their day-to-day spending, they tend to rely on family members or disability support staff for larger financial decisions.

At the same time, however, he said, “[In interviews] participants raised concerns about the financial ramifications of retirement, particularly those living independently and/or relying on wages to pay bills.

“Many lacked understanding of disability pension adjustment for partial or full retirement whereby an increase in the pension partly offsets lost wage income. Similarly, people knew of the existence of superannuation (retirement savings through compulsory employer contributions) but were not aware of the details.”

Mr Stancliffe suggested that exposure to non-disabled co-workers could be a factor in those interviewees showing a greater concern for their retirement future.

Speaking to Nest Egg, Mr Stancliffe concluded, “If people are segregated away from the mainstream of society, then, of course, the rest of us are not really aware of their situation.

“[However] if they are a co-worker, or a neighbour, or somebody who catches the same bus as I catch to work, then just very naturally people just become more aware of the situation and are more accepting. Then more or less, it's just normal.

“Of course the person with a disability can work, or catch the bus, or live in an ordinary house on an ordinary street.”

Is our retirement system meeting people with disabilities’ needs?
Is our retirement system meeting people with disabilities’ needs?
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