Disability policy tests Canadian values


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It’s perplexing for disabled people and advocates that while so many media headlines point to the extreme financial struggles of people with disabilities in our inflationary economy, the powers that be continue debating details.

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It’s perplexing for disabled people and advocates that while so many media headlines point to the extreme financial struggles of people with disabilities in our inflationary economy, the powers that be continue debating details.

What details? Our parliamentarians are busy parsing the words of the proposed federal Canada Disability Benefit (CDB) as it wends its way through third reading in the House of Commons before it must go to the Senate for ever more debate and discussion.

People with disabilities need financial relief, and they need it now. While we want the CDB to be robust — not clawed back by provincial disability programs, for example — we need it fast-tracked so essential dollars are in the pockets of people who need it today, and not in some distant promised future.

Poverty affects health outcomes — it’s part of what researchers refer to as “the social determinants of health.” Forty-one per cent of people living in poverty in Canada are disabled. More than 50 per cent of people who are food-insecure are disabled.

Persons with disabilities in Canada are punished by poverty, in other words. And it’s affecting their health, wellness and longevity.

Before the pandemic, persons with disabilities were almost twice as likely as persons without disabilities to report most days are quite a bit or extremely stressful (23.4 per cent vs. 11.9 per cent). Among those who reported experiencing at least a bit of stress on most days, persons with disabilities were more than 10 times as likely as persons without disabilities to report their main source of stress was related to their health (13.8 per cent vs. 1.1 per cent).

It’s safe to say life during the pandemic has been even tougher for people with disabilities, especially if they are living in poverty.

Several persons with disabilities have already left this world using Canada’s legal right to Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD). Our society sees this as a humane and visionary social policy that reflects compassion for people who have medical conditions with no real treatment options.

Many disabled people and their allies have also raised funds online as the only way for a person with disabilities to survive legislated poverty. Our society seems to think giving money to people with disabilities encourages them not to work.

Other individuals with disabilities have experienced police violence while in crisis needing mental-health support. Our society acts as if it doesn’t even know they exist, or is unaware they experience racism, ableism and trauma at the hands of institutional policies on a daily basis, let alone a lifetime of poverty.

That so much is wrong with our Canadian values right now is reflected in disability policy; the needs of people with disabilities come down to dollars and cents. So, let’s follow the money.

MAiD, it seems, is a cheaper social-policy alternative than footing the bill for appropriate health care and extended health services that would improve quality of life.

Giving benefits with stringent requirements, limiting opportunities to earn money or receive gifts, is seen as responsible administration; in reality, it pushes people further to the margins.

Police intervention as the default option for crisis response for people with intellectual disabilities is a cost incurred, but not measured.

Recent increases to provincial disability support programs has put very little real money into the hands of people with disabilities to pay for their basic needs, such as hygiene products and over-the-counter pain medications. Most increases don’t even match inflation, which means those in need actually have less money this year than last.

Yes, the CBD is making its way through our democratic parliamentary process. All we can hope is that our Canadian values embedded in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms will prevail — and we will put life, liberty and security of the person first for this critical federal disability policy.

But justice delayed is justice denied.

If we wait for this legislative process to determine all of the details of a perfect benefit, its arrival will be too late for someone else.

Rabia Khedr is a national director for Disability Without Poverty.

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