Sense on Commissions
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Disability in New Zealand

A modest collection of disability resources. The intention is constrasting personal definitions of disability, (and a surprising resilience in employment) and societal definitions of disability, and particularly a rising trend in welfare assistance to classfy people as disabled, with the approach that insurers take along with some reflections on those differences.

Key Statistics:

17% of the total population are disabled. Lower than in 1996 and 2001 (the figure was 20%). In the 45 to 64 age gorup the figure was as high as 25% and has fallen to 20%. Disabled in this context, can still mean working, as you will have guessed from these figures.

Diseases or illnesses were the most common cause of disability for adults, followed by accidents or injuries and ageing. Accidents or injuries were given as a cause of disability for an estimated 166,300 adults and the most common type of accident or injury causing disability was one that occurred at work.

Around 5% of the working age population receives either sickness beenfit or invalids benefit - slightly below the OECD average. But this number has been after some substantial growth - and is against a background of falling levels of total disability. Here's a chart - hat tip: Kiwiblog.

Disability benefits

Now we can compare that with working age population - again hat-tip: Kiwiblog.

Disability Benefits2

Interestingly, the disconnect between the reported definitions and receipt of financial assistance from the state go further one report states "...many people on disability benefits do not regard themselves as having a disability, while, at the same time, many people classify themselves as severely disabled, do not work and receive no benefits..." up to 20% of severely disabled people with no income may receive no benefit, in fact (according to an OECD report).

Sickness benefits grew by a rate of about 15% from 1985 to about 1995 - and then levelled off. In 1991 changes made to the Sickness Benefit meant that as a proportion of the average after tax weekly earnings it fell from being worth about 40% to being worth about 32%.

Invalids benefit recipient numbers have been rising at an annual rate of 7.5% per annum since 1975. This benefit is worth about 35% of the average weekly wage.

Reflections:

Many people identify as being disabled and remain active in the workforce and still want to work iin spite of the barriers that disability and prejudice place in their way.

The insurance industry may be fighting a headwind caused by increasing social welfare tendancy to classify people as disabled - as the societal threshhold for disability lowers, insurers rejecting claims look increasingly nasty - when in practice they are work-testing only to a level that has historical acceptance and functional validity.

Economic conditions are making the situation harder - clearly, as many as 1 in 5 people who are seriously disabled do not like claiming benefits (there remains a social stigma). They may feel happier claiming an insurance benefit, and indeed, insurers will see a rise in disability claims as return to work is hindered by economic conditions and possible income falls below the income from paid benefits.

Insurers can engage better with the disability groups to align their communications with the core of long-term disabled who clealry meet policy definitions. Mere acceptance of a claim makes their public position seem heartless - especially when much energy is clearly invested in the rejection of claims that are not valid. Celebration of effective and fulfilling lives of the disabled would be a welcome balance to that.

Societal definitions of disability should be constrasted with policy definitions in detail with interested audiences - medical, consumer groups, governmental, non-governmental organisations so that insurers are both clear on where they stand and have a basis for drawing distinctions between claim definitions and others. 

Resources:

  • Disability Survey, Statistics New Zealand, October 2007
  • Disability Stocktake, Statistics New Zealand, February 2007 - a summary of administrative data, benefits, and eligibility criteria.
  • Improving the labour force participation of people on disability-related benefits, The Treasury, April 2005
  • Background information briefing for members of parliament, August 2000
  • Kiwiblog article on beneficiary numbers - link.

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