Wheelchair-bound student denied welfare payments because 'she is not disabled enough'

Sam Hussey

A wheelchair-bound university student forced to turn down a dream internship and defer study due to several debilitating illnesses claims Centrelink denied her disability assistance because she’s “not disabled enough”.

As she prepares to spend another night in Flinders Hospital, Carmel Johnson has come to terms with the fact she will soon need a feeding tube to nourish her incredibly delicate frame.

Despite her hospitalisation and a fear she could break a rib just from coughing, the 23-year-old says she was not only denied a disability pension, but also told by Centrelink she’d need to book an appointment so she could start looking for work.

Ms Johnson told 7 News Online she had been sick all her life.

“Growing up I was often told by doctor after doctor that I needed to eat different, exercise more, I was told everyone gets a bit of pain or depression,” she said.

Carmel Johnson was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome in May. Source: Instagram

She would miss school for moths at a time time as her low immune system struggled through battles with swine flu and glandular fever.

In May, the University of Adelaide student was finally diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that led to the development of multiple chronic conditions.

“The fact is my immune system was so low, this often just made things much worse,” Ms Johnson said.

The 23-year-old has been forced to put her studies, job and internship in Indonesia on permanent hold due to her frail condition. Source: Instagram

While the severity of Ms Johnson’s illnesses varied at times, she cherished a few years of improved health at the end of high school.

That good run ended after a trip to Vietnam in 2013. Now, Ms Johnson has accepted she will likely be in and out of hospital for the rest of her life.

The once avid swimmer now interchanges between a wheelchair, walker and waking sticks just to keep her on her feet.

Carmel has to take 30 pills a day as a result of her five conditions. Source: Instagram

Ms Johnson’s rapidly increasing medical costs, many of which aren’t covered by Medicare, amount to nearly $1700 a week, a major toll on her family.

Refusing to forfeit her spot in a much loved share house, a wheelchair-bound woman went to Centrelink to ask for help covering the exponential costs.

“They basically gave me four days to get everything together, and told me to write down all of my diagnosis and all of my symptoms,” she told 7 News Online.

“I have over 100.

“If I couldn’t prove the symptoms would last for the next two years, I couldn’t qualify for a disability pension.

“I went home and frantically called all my specialists trying to get as many letters together as possible.”

As Carmel's mum pushed her wheelchair into Centrelink, they weren't expecting she'd be denied a much needed disability pension. Source: GoFundMe
The Adelaide local has maintained a positive attitude throughout her debilitating battle with EDS. Source: Instagram

Returning within the four-day time frame, Ms Johnson and her mother were told everything seemed to be in order.

It wasn’t – two days later Centrelink informed Ms Johnson her application had been denied as multiple of her diseases were not recognised in Australia.

“They called me up and said you’ll need to book an appointment so you can start looking for work,” she added.

“I sort of laughed, I can’t even stand up or eat, my memory is shot – I would be absolutely useless at any job.

“Everything [at Centrelink] is becoming more computerised, you don’t really have people looking at your case.

“There’s a computer system deciding whether you are disabled enough.”

Carmel told 7 News Online the only food she has been able to stomach is soup, meaning she will likely require a feeding tube if her condition doesn't improve. Source: Instagram

After sharing her story and detailing her ongoing battle through her GoFundMe and Instagram pages, a Centrelink representative contacted Ms Johnson to tell her she could reapply for her disability pension.

As she attempted to keep down the hospital food being brought into her room, Ms Johnson said it breaks her heart that hundreds of people just like her are missing out on their disability pensions.

“Just because I may not look disabled doesn’t mean I’m not, people can’t see what’s going inside my body… the reality is auto-immune diseases can rear their ugly heads in your 20s,” Carmel said.

Centrelink told 7 News Online the most common reason Disability Support Pension claims are rejected is because criteria are not met.

"Under legislation, medical conditions must be permanent, fully diagnosed, treated and stabilised before the department’s health professionals are able to assess the functional impact of those conditions," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said Centrelink has since reached out to Ms Johnson.

Donations to Carmel's GoFundMe page can be made here.