The emails are heart-breaking. People, young and old, responding to the story of Julia Gilchrist, a successful young woman who has had trouble holding down a job because she is profoundly deaf, but has been told she is “not disabled enough” by Centrelink to qualify for disability support.
There is the mother fielding job application phone calls for a deaf son who was made redundant a month ago. So far ten companies have responded to his resume.
“But as soon as I mention [he] is hearing impaired they do not wish to go to the next level,” she writes.
Another woman, 50, had worked for 30 years in data entry before being made redundant. She too is deaf, and is at the mercy of a Centrelink job provider who cannot find her work.
“It is the most frustrating, depressing experience anyone can go through,” she writes.
And it is not just deaf people who have been told they are not disabled enough. In Western Australia, Prue Hawkins, 33, who has brittle bone disease and is confined to a wheelchair, has been given the same response.
A government-commissioned review has recommended pushing more people who are apparently "able to work" off the disability support pension and on to the dole.
There, they will be stuck in a world Franz Kafka himself could not have dreamed up, where the deaf are expected to receive vital information over the phone, and people in wheelchairs expected to apply for jobs at their local supermarket.
It may seem incomprehensible, but anyone who has ever had the misfortune of ending up in a Centrelink queue knows this is just the next logical step in a long history of Liberal and Labor “reforms” to welfare.
Our “welfare” system is not about welfare, it is about punishment. Years of demonisation of the unemployed by tabloid newspaper and TV scare campaigns has made it acceptable in our community for governments to design a system that forces people in need through as many humiliating and unpleasant hoops as possible to get their measly $35 or so a day.
One emailer tells how she has been made suddenly redundant from an $80,000-a-year job.
“I got $260 a fortnight which did not even pay my rent, let alone bills, food and getting to job interviews,'' she writes. ''I came up against constant requirements to undertake ‘job ready’ courses, such as learning how to turn a computer on and off, and open [Microsoft] Excel and Word.
“Insulting and embarrassing would be putting it mildly.”
My own experience on finishing university in 2007, mid-way through the year before many graduate hiring programs began, is similar. I only had a couple of shifts a week in my bar job and was switched from youth allowance to the dole to supplement my income.
A distinction average student with first class honours, I was immediately put into compulsory "job seeker training", where nine to five every day I went to an office and filled in an "employment workbook", before working nights at my bar job.
I filled in a “skills audit” worksheet, where I ticked whether or not I had skills such as “purchasing” and “estimating physical space”.
I was ''taught'' not to call people asking for work with a mouth full of food, or lie on my resume.
I quit before I got to the interview training week, where my workbook informed me I would be told to wear high heels and “wash, bathe or shower and use a deodorant”.
And while I briefly regretted that decision when, soon after, I developed a serious sickness and was without income for two weeks, I was grateful to know I would, within a few months, most likely get a full-time job.
I was privileged enough to bet on myself, and win, and I hope I never had to rely on Centrelink again.
But many thousands of Australians will not be so lucky. Young people just starting out or people with a disability – particularly mental illnesses, which are the most heavily stigmatised of all medical conditions – will suffer greatly.
As the former disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes has pointed out, the government is fixing a problem of job availability by attacking welfare availability.
The result will be countless more little humiliations, unremarked upon and unreported, but slowly chipping away at the self-esteem and opportunities for those of us who are most vulnerable.