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Too Old, Yet Too Healthy: Deaf And 'Forgotten' Without A Way Forward

Hundreds of deaf Australians are being denied thousands of dollars to pay for sign language interpreters because they’re too old to qualify for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

So-called ‘deaf elders’ claim it’s a clear case of age discrimination and say it’s contributing to worsening loneliness and depression within their community.

“She’s worried about her friends over 65, their health. Their mental health is deteriorating,” Tina Stuart told 10 News First while also interpreting for her mother Elizabeth Karn.

“I just feel like they’re the forgotten ones.”

Tina takes Thursdays off work each week so she can drive two hours to see her parents, Elizabeth and Walter. Both are deaf and are excluded from the NDIS because they were older than 65 when the scheme was rolled out in the NSW Illawarra region, where they live.

Elizabeth speaking to 10 News First through an interpreter. Photo: 10 News First.

Elizabeth had initially been excited about the long-awaited NDIS but was devastated to learn she’d miss out because of its age limit.

The scheme provides recipients thousands of dollars each year to pay for Auslan interpreters, who can charge up to $200 per hour. Auslan is the language of the deaf community in Australia. The average annual pay-out under the NDIS is $5,300 per person and there is little restriction on what the interpreter may be asked to do: visit a bank, a supermarket, a lawyer, or even a protest.

Once enrolled in the scheme, the funding continues after the recipient turns 65. The age limit only applies when first applying to the NDIS.

In contrast, those left outside the scheme complain that with the exception of medical appointments - where a free interpreter is provided under the National Auslan Interpreter Booking and Payment Service (NABS) - they have to pay for an interpreter themselves or rely on friends and family.

Protesters carried signs outside NSW Parliament calling to be included in the NDIS. Photo: 10 News First.

“I want them to be able to access an interpreter any day of the week,” said Tina, who often accompanies her parents to what would normally be private appointments.

“I love helping my parents but I have a life too and that’s one day I miss out on work. And one day I miss out on my family.

“The NDIS should be inclusive for all Australians with a disability.”

In 2016, there were 871 signing deaf Australians over the age of 65, according to the national census. More than 500 are now members of a group called Australian Deaf Elders which is campaigning for the introduction of support packages equal to what’s offered under the NDIS.

“It’s been three years that we’ve been protesting, trying to get this message out that no one is listening,” Lorraine Mulley told 10 News First through an interpreter.

Lorraine Mulley at a protest outside NSW Parliament House. Photo: 10 News First.

“We will never give up. We need to support each other and support people over 65.”

Representatives of the group previously met with former Federal Aged Care Minster Ken Wyatt but that produced no meaningful outcome. They’re now petitioning the new Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians, Senator Richard Colbeck. More detail on their petition can be found here.

10 News First approached Senator Colbeck and the new Minister for the NDIS Stuart Robert for interviews, but was instead provided a statement from the Department of Social Services.

“The age requirement for NDIS eligibility is based on the Productivity Commission recommendation that a person needs to have acquired their disability before the age of 65 and meet other eligibility criteria in order to be an NDIS participant," the statement said.

Australian Government Services Minister Stuart Robert. Photo: AAP.

“The NDIS is not intended to replace the health or aged care systems.

“For those 65 and over, there is a range of supports available within the aged care system that can be accessed through My Aged Care, which may be suitable for older people with disability.”

However many ‘deaf elders’ don’t qualify for My Aged Care support because they’re too fit and healthy to be classified as ‘frail’ and the assistance on offer primarily relates to cleaning, transport and physical home care – not Auslan interpreting.

Tina sees it as a straight-forward case of discrimination.

“It’s like a basic human right for them," she said.

“To take away their communication, their right to be able to communicate, their right to have an interpreter, if you take that away then they have nothing.”

Contact the author: lkennedy@networkten.com.au