Welfare Working Group Issues Paper, 'Long-Term Benefit Dependence: The Issues' Submission

The Welfare Working Group was established by Government to review New Zealand’s welfare system, and identify how to reduce long-term welfare dependency. The group released an issues paper for public comment titled 'Long-Term Benefit Dependence: The Issues'.

The Foundation's submission was concerned with how the welfare system supports blind and partially sighted people of working age. The submission:

  • emphasised the central role of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Government's consideration of disabled people
  • reiterated that the costs of blindness occur regardless of employment or marital status, and
  • emphasised the need to remove barriers to employment, balanced with ongoing support for those who can't find suitable employment.


Full text of submission


This is the Blind Foundation’s submission to the Welfare Working Group on their discussion document "Long-Term Benefit Dependency: The Issues".

Blind Foundation

The Blind Foundation (the Foundation) is New Zealand's primary provider of vision-related habilitation and rehabilitation services to blind and partially sighted people. The Foundation's vision is empowering and supporting blind and partially sighted New Zealanders to ensure that they have the same opportunities and choices as everyone else.

The Foundation's Employment Service supports working-age members who are seeking employment, or who are looking for support to keep the job they're in. The Employment Service is a registered member of the Association for Supported Employment in New Zealand (ASENZ) and is funded by the Ministry of Social Development.

Foundation members

This submission is concerned with how the welfare system supports blind and partially sighted people of working age.

The Foundation has about 11,500 blind and partially sighted members, including many who are deafblind.

Most sight loss occurs later in life, and 69% of Foundation members are aged 65 or over. This group is commonly supported by New Zealand Superannuation, which is outside the scope of the Welfare Working Group and this submission.

Around 3000 Foundation members are of working age. Many of these members are eligible to receive the Invalid's Benefit. The Foundation's criteria for membership is broader than the Invalid's Benefit criteria for blindness. As a result, some Foundation members are eligible for the non-means tested Invalid's Benefit on the basis of blindness, while others are eligible for the Invalid's Benefit on the basis of long-term sight loss which affects the ability to work, but does not meet the blindness criteria. Some working age Foundation members do not receive welfare payments.

Of members who are of working age, Foundation research in 2007 found that around 56% are unemployed, and of those employed, many are under-employed.<1> Of members surveyed who worked part time, 50% said they would prefer to work more hours. Many members who are not in paid employment would like to work, but face barriers to employment. 50% of those surveyed who were unemployed said that they would accept suitable employment if it was available.

The key issues addressed in this submission are:

  • The Government's obligations to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). This outlines the Government's commitments to ensure disabled people enjoy the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms<2>, and must be foremost in any consideration of changing the way that the Government financially supports disabled people.
  • The costs of blindness and disability. Blindness imposes financial and non-financial costs on the individual, which are created through the individual's interaction with a society where "one group of people create barriers by designing a world only for their way of living, taking no account of the impairments other people have."<3> Costs of blindness occur regardless of employment or marital status. One of the functions of the welfare system is to compensate the individual for these costs to ensure they can participate
  • Support for blind people to remove barriers to employment and to find suitable and retain paid work, balanced with ongoing support for those who can't find suitable employment.

Responses to Long-Term Benefit Dependency: The Issues

Q1: What do you think the goals or objectives of the benefit system should be?

For blind and partially sighted people, the benefit system should serve two key purposes:

  • To provide a basic level of income for people not in paid employment, to ensure an adequate standard of living. This helps the Government to meet its obligations under Article 28 of the UNCRPD.
  • To compensate individuals for the costs associated with blindness. These are extra, non-optional costs incurred by a blind or partially sighted person because of their vision impairment.<4> This allows blind people to participate in employment and other areas of life on an equitable basis, in line with the UNCRPD.

In addition, the benefit system should work with other agencies and organisations to support those who are seeking employment to remove barriers and find suitable employment.

Q2: Are there aspects of the benefit system that are outdated and have not kept place with the changing nature of work and families?

The criteria and structures of the current benefit system are based on a medical model of need that is out of step with the social model of disability outlined in the New Zealand Disability Strategy and the UNCRPD.

The current work exemption for blind people on the Invalid's Benefit goes some way to recognising that there are ongoing costs of disability that occur even when a disabled person is in work. Ongoing payments should be available to all blind or partially sighted people who are in employment and have ongoing costs associated with disability, not just those who meet the current narrow medical criteria.

Currently, Invalid's Benefit payments are affected by a spouse or partner's income. This reflects a historic attitude that expects families to "look after" disabled people. Costs of blindness do not change when a person enters a relationship, as they are related to the individual's blindness and how this affects their independent interactions with the world. Payments related to meeting the costs of disability should be assessed on individual need, not on partner's income.

The name of the Invalid's Benefit does not reflect a modern, respectful understanding of disability. The term "Disability Compensation" would be more appropriate.

Q3: What aspects of the current benefit system are working well and should be retained?

Non-means tested payments for blind people who are in employment. Access to ongoing support to meet the costs of disability is an essential part of ensuring that blind people have equitable access to employment. Costs of blindness often increase when a person finds paid employment.

Q4: What aspects of the benefit system contribute to long-term benefit receipt?

Lack of support for employment for individuals who receive the Invalid's Benefit. For example, the Government's recently introduced Community Max scheme supports youth on the Unemployment Benefit to find work, but is not available to those on the Invalid's Benefit.

Q5: What impacts do you see from long-term benefit receipt on individuals, families and whānau, communities and the economy?

Long-term benefit receipt can help an individual to meet the costs of disability, and is not mutually exclusive with full-time employment.

Access to long-term, predictable supports to help cover blindness-related costs means that blind people are able to make long-term choices about their independence, for example to accept employment where there is a significant transport cost to get to and from work.

Q6: What do you see as the main barriers to employment for people on a benefit?

Blindness itself does not mean that a person is unable to work, but blind people face significant barriers to employment. These are not just personal factors, but barriers in the environment surrounding the blind person.

For blind people, the main barriers are:

  • Health and disability issues, including having additional conditions or impairments.
  • Transport difficulties. In general, blind people have less transport options than sighted people as they are unable to drive and navigating independently may be difficult. Blind people often depend on costlier alternatives like taxis.
  • Lack of skills, training and access to the systems that prepare individuals for employment - for example limited access to education and training, work experience opportunities, transition support from school into employment and Government supports targeted at individuals on the Unemployment Benefit.
  • Inadequate access to specialist equipment and training to use it. Access to modified computers or technology can allow blind people to participate in a much wider range of employment. For example, access to screen reading software and a refreshable braille display can allow a blind person to perform most computer-based tasks, with the right training. Some funding is available for blind people in employment to access equipment and training, but this is limited, particularly for those who are not yet in employment. The 2006 Disability Survey found that people with sensory impairments were more likely to require technical equipment to participate in employment, and that this was the type of support where the most unmet need was reported.<5> For job seekers, access to equipment and training is critical to developing work skills such as computer literacy.
  • Access to information, job application processes and workplace technology. Most work environments require employees to access a wide range of information in print and through computer software. A blind or partially sighted employee can participate equitably if software systems are designed to work with adaptive technology and information is provided in accessible formats such as electronic text, braille or large print. A job seeker faces additional barriers to entering work if the job application process is not accessible.
  • Equitable access to tertiary education and training. Funding is limited for technical equipment and study materials in accessible formats needed for tertiary study and work preparedness training. In many cases, accessible study materials are not available to allow a blind or partially sighted student to complete tertiary study on an equitable basis. For example, the Blind Foundation recently heard of a student who received accessible study materials 8 weeks into a 12 week short course.
  • Lack of perceived or actual financial return for working. For Foundation members who do not quality for the Invalid's Benefit under the blindness criteria, their benefit reduces or is stopped when they begin working. Blindness-related costs associated with working may amount to more than the additional amount earned through paid work. For example, transport costs may significantly increase because an individual may need to travel by taxi.
  • Attitudes and awareness of employers and colleagues towards blindness. Blindness is a low-incidence disability, particularly among the working age population. Many New Zealanders have not interacted with a blind person, and have limited perceptions about the capabilities of blind people. For example, employers may cite Health and Safety legislation as a reason not to employ a blind person, because they are not aware of what is required to make an environment safe for blind people.

Q7: What are the barriers to employers hiring long-term beneficiaries and also investing in workplace health programmes?

Attitudes and awareness of blindness, as described in the previous answer. The Employers Disability Network<6> supported by the Ministry of Social Development is a positive framework to raise employer awareness and involvement.

Q8: Should there be more of a focus on paid work for sole parents?

For parents of blind children, it can be difficult and expensive to find access to appropriate childcare and early education services. Often there are better outcomes for the family and the blind child if a sole parent is supported to choose between paid work and parenting, rather than prioritising paid work.

Q9: Where appropriate, should there be more of a focus on paid work for people managing with a sickness or disability?

There should be more opportunity and support for blind people to find paid work, but not at the expense of supporting those who cannot find appropriate work.

Many blind people who are unemployed would like to work. Blind Foundation research in 2007 found that 50% of unemployed working-age blind people would accept suitable employment if it was available. <7>

Article 27 of the UNCRPD recognises "the right of persons with disabilities to work on an equal basis with others; this includes the right to the opportunity to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities." The Article describes actions that the Government has agreed to take to promote and enable employment for disabled people.

Implementing Article 27 of the UNCRPD and increasing employment is not a matter for welfare reform in isolation, but requires collaboration between Government, the compulsory and tertiary education sectors, nonprofits and employers.

Balancing this right to work, Article 28 of the UNCRPD requires Government to ensure that disabled people enjoy an adequate standard of living and social protection.

It is important that "a focus on paid work" means increasing supports to remove barriers and enable disabled people to work, not simply cutting or reducing benefits to incentivise finding paid work. Again, many blind people want to work, and unemployment is a result of environmental barriers, not simply an issue of individual capacity or attitude.

Q10: Does the benefit system do enough to encourage personal responsibility?

The benefit system does not currently do enough to encourage Invalid's Benefit recipients into work, but the solution is better supports, not sanctions for failing to find work. Access to work is not simply a matter of personal motivation, but of environmental barriers.

Page 49 of the discussion paper suggests that there could be significant benefits in directing more effort and resources to Invalid's Benefit recipients to help them become work-ready.

Q11: Should the scope and nature of the current benefit categories be retained?

The non-means tested payments for blind people on the Invalid's Benefit should be retained. There is a need to recognise the ongoing costs of disability even when a person is in work. Costs associated with blindness do not disappear when an individual finds work, but often increase. The welfare system should invest in the individual's independence by continuing to support them to meet the costs of blindness in a paid work setting.

The assumptions behind the current Invalid's Benefit category may prevent the best outcome for an individual. For example, a person can be disabled, while also out of work and a sole parent. Categories should not assume that disability means a person can not work.

Q12: Does the complexity and structure of supplementary payments create disincentives to paid work?

The complexity of the current benefit system can mean that people don't get all the supports they're entitled to, because they or their case manager are not aware of all they are eligible for. In some cases, this may mean that individuals don't have adequate supports to find appropriate work.

Q13: How can Work and Income and other delivery agencies better support people into paid work?

Work and Income can work together with welfare recipients, education and training providers, employers and the disability sector to identify and remove barriers to employment for each individual, and to ensure supports are integrated and delivered in a timely way. In particular, there is a need for cross-agency collaboration to support individuals transitioning from school into work.

Transitions into employment need to ensure the person is financially better off. This could be achieved by structuring welfare payments to meet the individual's cost of disability.

The OECD's conclusions on disability policy, referenced on page 45 of the discussion document, provide several practical policy lessons.

Q14: Are there lessons from an insurance approach for the benefit system?

Insurance will not always be an appropriate model, for example it is not easy to see how an insurance model could support people born with impairments. Impairments acquired later in life are often not work-related, and it would be inappropriate for employers to share the social cost of compensating for disability. Work-related injuries resulting in impairment are often covered by the ACC scheme.

The UNCRPD requires Government to ensure society supports all disabled people to have an adequate standard of living, not just those who have been in paid work.

Q15: Do you agree that the current benefit system is socially and economically unsustainable?

The analysis presented in the discussion paper suggests that the current benefit system is not financially sustainable. Removing welfare supports for disabled people without adequate support for employment would be equally unsustainable.

Q16: Are there important issues that are in the Terms of Reference for the Welfare Working Group that you think we have not covered in this paper?

Adequacy of in-work supports (other than direct income support) to allow disabled people to retain employment.


Further Information

The Foundation would welcome opportunities to provide more information if required. Please direct any questions to:

Moira Clunie
Insights, Policy & Advocacy Manager

Telephone: +64 9 355 6938
Email: mclunie@blindfoundation.org.nz

Blind Foundation
Private Bag 99941


<1> Wilkinson-Meyers, L; McNeill, R; Inglis, C and Bryan, T (2008) Blind Foundation 2007 Employment Survey. Centre for Health Services Research and Policy, The University of Auckland Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

<2> United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, available online at http://www.un.org/disabilities/

<3> New Zealand Disability Strategy (2001), available online at http://www.odi.govt.nz/nzds/index.html

<4> Gravitas (2004) The Cost of Blindness in New Zealand. Prepared for the Blind Foundation. and Disability Resource Centre (2010) The Cost of Disability Final Report, available online at http://tiaho.org.nz/about/project/cost_of_disability_research_project/.

<5> Statistics New Zealand (2006) Disability and the Labour Market in New Zealand in 2006. Statistics New Zealand.

<6> The Employers Disability Network, http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/work-programmes/initiatives/employers-disability-network/index.html

<7> Wilkinson-Meyers, L; McNeill, R; Inglis, C and Bryan, T (2008) Blind Foundation 2007 Employment Survey. Centre for Health Services Research and Policy, The University of Auckland Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

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