What It’s Like to Be Young and on Disability

For me the Disability Support Pension isn't about choosing an easy life. It means an end to the cycle of poverty-line casual jobs that made me sicker.

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Aug 31 2015, 2:05pm

Image by Ben Thomson

"Twenty-four!" says the man interviewing me. "Twenty-four! The best days of your life!" Eyes bright on me, he pushes his reading glasses up his forehead. "All that energy and partying and casual sex!" I cross my legs uncomfortably, even that small motion takes effort. While my 40-year-old prospective employer reminisces about his glory days, my inner countdown clock to collapse is ticking.

But he drones on, after all he doesn't know about my condition. He just sees a 20-something girl with an Arts degree. But medical bills are crushing me, and I really need this job. As the CEO assures me of his confidence that I can handle front-of-house and the accounts ("Only temporary until Mark gets back from Sweden!"), my legs shake a little. The interview is already running long, that means the little energy I've saved for grocery shopping later is now spent. The CEO gestures to the cramped reception desk, piled with archive boxes: "A project for you!"

Later at home, I feel hopeless. Every job I apply for expects me to work long hours for little pay and mortgage my own nervous system to get a foot in the door. The assumption is that youth equals health—but here I am, young and chronically ill. I'm terrified to bring up my medical condition with employers, since telling them "I am not able to do that" feels like saying "Do not hire me."

It's easy to feel unwanted as a person with a disability when the government and some media outlets consistently refer to you as a "bludger," "slacker," or "burden." In July, the Daily Telegraph published a photo of Australia's Social Services Minister Scott Morrison with the headline "He Rorter Be Congratulated," celebrating the fact that Disability Support Pension (DSP) claimants were being rejected at the highest rate in ten years. The implication was that every rejected applicant was a would-be "rorter" [cheater] of the system, because why else do people apply for disability support? Morrison has stated that the government's goal is to "relieve the burden on the system," specifically by cracking down on DSP recipients aged 35 and under.

The previous two governments have made young people with disability a focal point when examining disability support. Focusing on mandated activities such as re-training or work for the dole—programs that frame people with disabilities as unskilled and having little value.

Dr. Louise Humpage, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, says this kind of conversation frames "paid work as the first and most fundamental duty of citizens." And places the problem on "the individual and their impairment, rather than in the way in which disability is socially constructed." It tells people with disabilities it's their responsibility to fit into a workforce that is largely inaccessible to them, rather than ask the workforce to make an effort to be more inclusive of their needs.

"Let's encourage them to work rather than sitting on welfare—that's a council of despair," said former Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews, when discussing the issue. Politicians are quick to call work a dignity, to describe disability pensioners as "sitting on welfare." But living with disability requires active management, creativity, and resourcefulness; and adequately feeding, housing, and caring for yourself isn't just "sitting around."

At 29-years-old, I now rely on the Disability Support Pension as my main source of income. Trying to manage my disability while also working is beyond my physical capacity. In minimum-wage jobs, I faced confrontations like a restaurant manager telling me she was cutting back my shifts because "you can't keep up with the other waitstaff." I still get cold sweats and panic-hoard cans of lentils just in case mine is the next pension to be cut. The DSP for me isn't about choosing an easy life, it means an end to food insecurity. It sets me free from the cycle of poverty-line casual jobs that made me sicker, giving me the flexibility to work from home instead.

There's all this talk about whether the DSP is a "set and forget" payment. I often feel forgotten by the government, but not because they set me a pension. I feel remembered every time that payment hits my bank account. The money itself is my dignity: it allows me to eat until I'm full, to afford a new winter blanket, to live somewhere I feel safe. It beats vomiting quietly into a bucket next to my bed because the bathroom is too far away and I'm afraid of my Gumtree-found roommates.

A 2011 analysis of World Health Organization statistics found that "the health of young people has been largely neglected in global public health because this age group is perceived as healthy." People tell us these are "the best days of your life," but youth with disability is still disability.

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