Karyn Keith, who receives CPP disabilities benefits, poses for a portrait in her home in Brampton, Ont., Monday, January 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

‘Do our lives count for less?’: COVID-19 exposes cracks in disability aid

In July, Parliament approved a $600 payment for people with disabilities facing additional expenses during COVID-19

Karyn Keith says she isn’t asking for much. All she wants is the same support she’d receive if she was out of a job because of the pandemic, rather than unable to work because of her disabilities.

The 44-year-old mother in Brampton, Ont., said she lives with constant pain and fatigue from multiple chronic conditions, including trigeminal neuralgia, a debilitating nerve disorder characterized by searing spasms through the face.

She was forced to leave her career in supply chain and logistics management in 2013 when her health deteriorated after the birth of her daughter. Since then, she’s received $1,150, plus $250 for her child, every month in federal disability benefits based on her contributions to the Canada Pension Plan.

Even with her husband’s income as a mechanic, Keith said most of her family’s spending is geared towards “survival.”

Still, some essentials fall through the cracks.

There’s a molding hole in her ceiling that’s needed repair since 2014. Her husband’s teeth are breaking because they can’t afford to fill his cavities. Every month, they have to dip into their dwindling savings to pay the bills.

Now, with the added financial strains of COVID-19, Keith says she doesn’t know what else they can live without. “We’re on the precipice, and literally, it’s going to take one thing to kick us off the edge.”

Keith says these shortcomings have become starker as the federal government doles out $2,000 a month to millions of out-of-work Canadians under the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, while she’s supposed to make ends meet on a little more than half that amount.

“If people who work need this money to survive on, what about people who can’t?” Keith said. “Don’t we deserve a standard of living?”

Many advocates point to CERB as a concession that Canada’s disability assistance rates have failed to keep up with the costs of living in much of the country, and in some places, fallen below the poverty line.

But for a number of Canadians on disability assistance, CERB has also come to symbolize the extent to which their lives are devalued, even during a pandemic that puts them at disproportionate physical and financial risk.

“For some, it’s just reinforced the profound sense of cynicism of how they’ve been treated for much of their life by the government,” said Michael Prince, a professor of social policy at University of Victoria.

Prince said COVID-19 presents a case study in the pitfalls of Canada’s motley patchwork of disability income programs, and a model for how a unified nation-wide support system like CERB could fill these holes in the social safety net.

Shortly after the pandemic hit, Ottawa rolled out the $82-million emergency benefits package to offer workers who lost their jobs $500 a week.

The government’s latest figures show $62.75 billion in benefits have been paid to 8.46 million people. Last Friday, federal officials announced that CERB will wind down in coming weeks as the government shifts many people over to a revamped employment insurance system.

Prince said the speed and simplicity of CERB marked a bitter contrast for many disability assistance recipients who must navigate a Byzantine set of eligibility requirements and rate calculations before their benefits kick in.

In late July, Parliament approved a one-time $600 payment for people with disabilities facing additional expenses during COVID-19, including the increased costs of food, medication, support workers and personal protective equipment.

Prince commended the government for including an estimated 1.7 million Canadians across a range of disability support programs, and giving people 60 days to apply for the disability tax credit, which would qualify them for the one-time payment.

Unlike CERB, the payment is tax-free and non-reportable, Prince noted, so it won’t be subject to clawbacks or offsets at the provincial level.

READ MORE: Canada home to 6.5 million people with one or more disability

Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough said in a statement that the government remains committed to a “disability inclusive” pandemic response.

But Prince hopes this resolve will extend beyond the immediate crisis to address the long-standing lapses in the system that have forced so many Canadians with disabilities to live in poverty.

Andrea Hatala, recipient co-chair of the ODSP Action Coalition, said the discrepancies between provincial support rates and CERB have galvanized calls to make $2,000 a month the new standard for disability assistance.

“Now we have more of a basis for what adequacy is,” she said.

Under normal circumstances, Hatala said the Ontario Disability Support Program’s maximum individual rate of $1,169 a month leaves many people without secure access to food, shelter and other basics such as winter clothing.

Many people with disabilities have compromised immune systems, she said, so they face a higher risk of COVID-19 complications, and extra expenses to keep themselves safe.

The pandemic has restricted several services that low-income people rely on, such as food banks and public transit, Hatala said. In addition to retail markups on groceries and other goods, she said the high costs of delivery and private transportation have pushed many to their financial limits.

“There has been more light shining on these things,” noted Hatala.

“It doesn’t just happen magically. People have to try to make society better.”

In 2017, more than a quarter of Canadian adults with disabilities — or 1.6 million people — said they couldn’t afford a required aid, device or prescription medication, according to Statistics Canada.

The study also found that 28 per cent of people with severe disabilities aged 25 to 64 live below Canada’s official poverty line, compared to 10 per cent of their counterparts without disabilities.

In a report on welfare incomes in Canada in 2018, the anti-poverty foundation Maytree found that annual incomes for individuals on standard disability assistance ranged from $9,800 and $12,500 in most provinces. Ontario had the highest rate at $14,954, followed by British Columbia at $14,802 and Quebec at $13,651.

At these levels, the organization says many provincial programs don’t cover the costs of living in their biggest cities.

According to the government’s “market basket measure,” the poverty threshold for a single person in Calgary was $20,585 in 2018 — double Alberta’s standard disability rate of $10,301. Even at the higher end of the spectrum, B.C.’s support payments fall $5,882 short of the $20,684 poverty threshold in Vancouver.

Vancouver activist romham gallacher, who spells their name with lower-case letters, is part of the grassroots group 300ToLive that’s pushing B.C. to extend its $300 supplement to disability assistance beyond the COVID-19 crisis as part of a broader effort to bring benefits in line with a basic standard of living.

READ MORE: B.C. adding $300 to monthly income and disability assistance payments

Even as the pandemic has exacerbated the desperate circumstances many disability assistance recipients live in, gallacher said the $300 supplement has shown how a modest increase can have momentous impacts on people’s quality of life.

In an informal survey of 285 people who received the supplement, 300ToLive found that the overwhelming majority of respondents said they spent the money on healthy food.

Gallacher was particularly touched by one woman who said the supplement ensured that she didn’t have to choose between paying rent and feeding her one-year-old daughter, and even allowed her to buy a new bedsheet and underwear for the first time in years.

A spokeswoman for B.C.’s Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction said the supplement, which is due to expire after this month’s cheque, is an “extraordinary measure” meant to relieve the compounded pressures on assistance recipients who already live in poverty.

But gallacher said the government’s insufficient support rates betray its indifference towards the plight of people with disabilities.

“It says what much of society says: that our lives and contributions aren’t as important, we’re disposable,” gallacher, who has a hearing condition, said by email.

“The federal government decided that $2,000 was the amount per month that folks across the country needed to live during this pandemic, so why are we still being forced to live well below that, while often having significant expenses? Do our lives count for less?”

READ MORE: B.C. extends income assistance exemption for COVID-19

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Disability

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

“We have to make a call out to address this now so our people don’t have to feel fearful,” said Tribal Chief Mina Holmes. (Carrier Sekani Tribal Council Facebook photo)
Carrier Sekani Tribal Council seeks Indigenous-led task force in northern B.C. hospitals

Request made in an open letter to federal minister Carolyn Bennett

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

Jennifer Rice BC NDP North Coast Incumbent was re-elected for a third according to the preliminary results on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Jennifer Rice is North Coast MLA for third term

Preliminary election results show NDP Majority government

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

John Horgan has been re-elected the MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca. (File-Black Press)
Horgan trounces challengers to be re-elected in his Vancouver Island riding

MLA has represented constituency of Langford-Juan de Fuca and its predecessors since 2005

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates the COVID-19 situation, B.C. legislature, Oct. 26, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count jumps by 287, another senior home outbreak

Two more deaths recorded, community outbreak in Okanagan

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with US Vice-President Joe Biden on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
A Biden presidency could mean good news for Canadian environment policy: observers

Experts and observers say even a U.S. outside the Paris agreement may ultimately end up in the same place

People take a photo together during the opening night of Christmas Lights Across Canada, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. The likelihood that most Canadians will enjoy a holly jolly Christmas season of gatherings, caroling and travel is unlikely, say public health experts who encourage those who revel in holiday traditions to accept more sacrifices ahead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Ho, ho, no: Experts advise preparing for a scaled-back COVID holiday season

Many of the holiday season’s highlights have already been scrapped or are unlikely to take place

Sen. Kim Pate is shown in Toronto in an October 15, 2013, file photo. The parliamentary budget office says a proposed law that would give judges discretion on whether to apply a lesser sentence for murder could save the federal government $8.3 million per year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel
Judicial discretion for mandatory minimum sentences for murder would save $8.3M: PBO

The result would be fewer people in long-term custody at federal correctional institutions, experts say

Commissioner Austin Cullen looks at documents before opening statements at the Cullen Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in British Columbia, in Vancouver on February 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
RCMP lacked dedicated team to investigate illegal activities at casino, inquiry hears

Hearings for the inquiry are set to continue into next week and the inquiry is expected to wrap up next year

Robert Riley Saunders. (File)
Court approves money for B.C. foster children alleging harm from Kelowna social worker

The maximum combined total award for basic payments and elevated damages for an individual is $250,000

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

An untitled Emily Carr painting of Finlayson Point was donated to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria by brothers Ian and Andrew Burchett. The painting had been in their family for several decades. (Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria)
Never-before-seen painting by famed B.C. artist Emily Carr gifted to Victoria gallery

Painting among several donated to Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

The B.C. Centre for Disease control is telling people to keep an eye out for the poisonous death cap mushroom, which thrives in fall weather conditions. (Paul Kroeger/BCCDC)
Highly poisonous death cap mushroom discovered in Comox

This marks first discovery on Vancouver Island outside Greater Victoria area

Most Read