Public services, not private donations, are the solution to disabled poverty

In Canada, more than one in five people live with a disability. While almost everyone knows someone impacted, most people aren’t aware that government support doesn’t scratch the surface when it comes to covering even the most basic needs. Canadians with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than the rest of the population.

People with disabilities have higher costs of living because they face costs other Canadians have never had to consider. There’s a misconception that things like accessible home adaptations and essential mobility aids are covered by public programs. Yet coverage across a patchwork of federal, provincial and territorial funding is partial at best, forcing people living with disabilities to choose between buying food and accessing the Internet or even fundraising to meet their basic needs.

In British Columbia, Madeline is literally fundraising to stay alive. Her financial vulnerability is urgent and increases by the day. She writes: “In B.C., [disabled] people receive about $1,000 per month less than what a healthy person earning minimum wage makes in a 40-hour week.” After four decades navigating so-called “social assistance,” Madeline is exhausted and deeply in debt. When she runs out of money, she plans to access the only other public service available to her: medical assistance in dying.

Madeline’s dilemma is far from unique. Statistics Canada confirms that over a quarter of people with disabilities cannot afford required assistive devices and prescriptions. What would you do if you couldn’t afford medication to control your pain? Or if the wheelchair you needed to move independently broke down before your province’s rules allowed funding for a new one?

The Disability Without Poverty movement emerged during the pandemic to address these injustices. The organization brings together people from communities across Canada with a diversity of disabilities and other intersecting identities. The movement advocates for a Canada Disability Benefit that would enable each person with a disability to be prosperous, realize their power, pursue their passions and participate in every aspect of society. It’s a vision that requires not only a unified disability movement, but action from all Canadians to push for collaboration between all levels of government.

The 2020 throne speech proposed “a new Canadian Disability Benefit modelled after the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors.” This commitment was renewed in the 2021 budget and must not be forgotten amid recent concerns around inflation.

People living with disabilities were neglected long before the pandemic and continue to face barriers to full social and economic participation. COVID-19 only highlighted the ways that ableism operates in Canadian society and our economic system.

The pandemic also prompted deeper consideration of the types of infrastructure required to support Canadians, and it isn’t just roads and railways. It’s systems of care that includes financial support.

In the early days of COVID, Ottawa moved quickly to support Canadians facing unemployment by introducing the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). The same care and attention was not extended to people with disabilities, who had to wait months for a symbolic $600 that was only available to people who qualify for the narrowly scoped Disability Tax Credit. Even this gesture often did more harm
than good.

The current system of income support for people with disabilities is designed around clawbacks. It’s a term that casts a long shadow in the disability community: essentially, if a person’s income or assets go up, then social assistance goes down. In Ontario, this meant that people receiving provincial disability support who were eligible for CERB lost $900 of every pandemic response payment.

The lack of co-ordination between federal and provincial programs adds insult to injury because, as Madeline’s experience shows, people receiving government assistance still live well below the poverty line. As a result, Disability Without Poverty argues for a national income supplement that would stack on top of existing benefits rather than compromising other forms
of support.

It is time for Canada to shift from social assistance to social infrastructure. While current social assistance programs are fragmented, difficult to navigate and built around restrictions, social infrastructure focuses on dignity rather than diagnosis, capacity rather than clawbacks. Adequate income support will enable people living with disabilities to contribute to shared spaces and services for all Canadians.

Rabia Khedr is the National Director of Disability Without Poverty.

Emily Macrae is a disabled writer and organizer combining policy analysis with lived experience to build accessible digital and urban environments.