We need to talk about Ireland’s soaring disability rates

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Eamon Delaney in TheTimes.ie  

We have a tendency to do taboos in Ireland and not to focus on certain things or question certain orthodoxies. Maybe it has something to do with our Catholic past and ethos. And indeed the Catholic ethos and behaviour of the Catholic church was something we didn’t question either – until it was too late.

But in our post-church secular society, we do much the same. There’s still the sense of skirting around certain topics, and having cotton-wool discussions. Yes, it tiring to hear the old PC chestnut but in Ireland its true. Very much so : look at the fuss when experts called out a few home truths on our homeless crisis.

Another area is disability. We now have a huge number of people classing themselves as disabled and continuing to grow. But if you dare question this, you risk being seen as uncaring and heartless. And picking on the disabled. In fact, it is actually the very opposite and very many people who are genuinely disable are often troubled and annoyed at what they perceive as others classing themselves as disabled in an exaggerated way.

We are not talking here about the seriously and genuinely disabled but those who are at least perceived to be taking a way out of working, and a way into securing State benefits. Many of us know of doctors who have been uneasy with requests from patients to diagnose them with say, depression. Meanwhile, genuine disability rights go unfulfilled and Ireland has yet to ratify the UN’s Convention on the Disabled, which is a shameful.

But we, at least, have more recognition of different disabilities in our society and of illnesses that were hitherto ignored. This explains at least much of the increase in applicants. However, maybe we need to have a debate about how far this has gone, in terms of persons leaving the workforce, and the soaring costs involved.

The statistics do not lie. In just over four years, from 2006 – 2011, there was almost a 40 per cent increase – 40 per cent !- in the number of people who have left the labour force citing a condition that substantially limited one or more basic physical activities.

This is not people born with a disability, but people who have developed a disabling condition. The increase was about 55,000 people, bigger than the population of Waterford. And yet between 2002 and 2006, the same figure only increased by 1per cent which was less than 2,000 people.

So what happened from 2006 to 2012 that caused so many extra people to leave the labour force due to physical disability? And why have we not discussed this extraordinary development ?

Indeed, the number of people leaving the work force citing a psychological or emotional condition rose even more dramatically in this period – 88,000 people were diagnosed with an emotional or psychological condition bad enough that they couldn’t work. This was a 27,000 rise from the same figure in 2006.

Now this surge looks like its happening again. Over the past five years, the number of people in Ireland with disabilities has risen by 58,000. A total of 643,131 people, almost an eighth of the population, reported that they had a disability in April of this year.

The highest was Wexford town with 18.1 per cent of constituents claiming they had a disability, and lowest was Ashbourne, Co Meath at about half that at 9.4 per cent.

The reality is that in Ireland a huge number of people have left the workforce and those who remain are paying the lion’s share in tax to pay for so many others. This is called the Squeezed Middle, but it is not much the Squeezed Middle as the Skinned Middle – skinned like a workhorse.

If you also factor out that Ireland still – still !- has one of the highest numbers of jobless households in the OECD per capita, then you are looking at a well-skinned middle carrying the rest of the country, while our populist Governments continue to spend the money of those who pay tax heavily just to work.

The disability figures do not appear in the unemployment figures, of course. They are stripped out – which is useful for the Government as it means the figures do not appear on the Live Register, and the employment statistics look better.

Ad above: the Government appears anxious to get more people on to the disability list.

The departure of tens of thousands of people from the work force due to disability has occurred despite the workforce being, in general, younger and healthier on most measures and despite the fact that there has been a significant reduction in discrimination against the disabled in the workplace.

Generally, you would expect the proportion of those people who state in surveys that they are disabled would progress in line with movements in the general population. A huge jump in disability – whether physical or emotional – might come if a country experienced a war or a natural catastrophe. But we haven’t had anything like this.

The sudden rise in disability began in the late 1990s and has continued for the past twenty years. Clearly, the narrative of our society, driven by quangos and political parties, is one of inclusiveness, healing and high State spending – and thus contributing to this trend. Easing the tax burden on middle income earners is, by contrast, a non starter.

It is clear that our population has not become dramatically more unhealthy in the past few years so clearly the State is now freely recognising conditions which up until now were not regarded as conditions which made people unfit for work.

There seems to be little awareness among the general public, of how often a declaration of disability is for life, or whether it is temporary. It seems that there are ways that the Government can encourage people to overcome certain disabling conditions so that they can become well again and achieve a better quality of life.

 

The authorities will also have to acknowledge the huge and growing number of people who are seeking to have a condition diagnosed in order to stay on benefits indefinitely and avoid their benefits being made conditional on having to go out and look for work.

Nobody wants to see potentially able-bodied and able-minded people leave the workforce, if it can be avoided, and even if its suits the Government. These are a precious resource to our society and they should be encouraged to stay in employment, or seeking such.

The fact that some many cases may be due to exaggerated ailments, only makes life more difficult for people who really are disabled because taxpayers will tend to be increasingly suspicious of those they think are faking it.

This is not a matter of welfare fraud versus legitimate need. It is simply about addressing a huge phenomenon in our society and one that is costly and unfair to those whose high taxes are paying for it.