May 28, 2020

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Opinion

Manitoba has to catch up on disability issues

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files</p><p>Allen Mankewich asks party representatives a question at the Disability Matters Vote leaders debate on Tuesday at the Norwood Hotel.</p></p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files

Allen Mankewich asks party representatives a question at the Disability Matters Vote leaders debate on Tuesday at the Norwood Hotel.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/8/2019 (273 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s hard to miss the Vote Disability Matters campaign signs that are cropping up around neighbourhoods as the provincial election pushes into its final weeks and the dog days of summer run out the clock. This is the second foray into electoral provincial politics for a group of disability advocates, working to engage politicians on issues of importance that affect all Manitobans with disabilities.

They’re working hard to raise issues that are most important to the quality of life and human rights of people with disabilities in Manitoba. A Disability Matters leaders debate drew an impressive crowd of more than 600 into the main auditorium at the Norwood Hotel on Tuesday, with more attending in overflow across the street at the legion and still others watching on Facebook and in pop-up events in Brandon, Portage, Dauphin, Selkirk, Steinbach and Thompson.

Organizers believe more than 1,000 watched the event being livestreamed. That’s an impressive turnout for a largely non-partisan event.

It certainly attracted the political elite as well. Every political party leader was in attendance, except Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister, who sent Heather Stefanson to represent his party. This was a smart strategic decision by the Tories, because this had been Stefanson’s file while in government and she could speak about her party’s record and plans.

And she took full advantage of her audience, making a surprise announcement that, at long last, changes are coming to the Employment and Income Assistance benefits package if a Pallister government is re-elected. Not immediately, of course — as with all things governmental, consultation needs to be done, but Stefanson has committed to an alternative income plan that will move from the EIA program and work toward a program that will benefit disabled Manitobans.

These changes can’t come fast enough for 37-year-old Lorna Ross, a dignified-income advocate. Ross is one of the 275,000 Manitobans — one in four — who lives with a disability. Disability Matters advocates say every Manitoban knows a person with a disability, so these issues should be everyone’s issues.

Born with spastic cerebral palsy, Ross has been trying to live on EIA benefits since she was 18 years old and she hasn’t seen an increase in rates for more than a decade. She says EIA and Rent Assist combined means she only gets around $900 a month to live on, and with that, she also must try to facilitate her special dietary needs. "I live very tightly," she says.

That means at the end of the month, Ross has nothing left over to allow her to purchase clothing, fresh vegetables or to save up to visit relatives. Any additional money she may make as an employee or in honorariums as a volunteer is subject to clawbacks by the system, which are a disincentive for her to work.

"I’m not winning," says Ross, whose ultimate goal is to attend a training program with additional supports so she can finally find full-time employment that will provide her with an income higher than EIA, which would allow her to break out of the poverty trap.

Disability Matters advocates are hoping the changes under consideration by the Tories will mirror those implemented in Saskatchewan when that province introduced its Assured Income for Disabilities (SAID) in 2009 and expanded it in 2012.

In the last Saskatchewan budget, SAID’s exemptions were increased, allowing individuals to keep money they earn rather than having it clawed back by the government. Unlike in Manitoba, which forces people such as Ross to pay back the government after she’s made $2,400 a year, in Saskatchewan, exemptions were increased to $6,000 per year for individuals, $7,200 for couples and $8,500 for families.

As well, the SAID program doesn’t penalize recipients if they inherit properties, and Saskatchewan has improved amounts for rentals and other categories. Indeed, a look at the SAID disability rates available online for 2015 indicates a substantive difference in rental and living expenses compared to what Ross disclosed she earns.

The living benefit under SAID for one person in a major city is $1,064, plus $805 for rent and additional support for categories such as laundry, telephone, electricity, heating and other utility costs if necessary. That’s more than twice what Ross receives.

The question is, why should Ross or any other Manitoban have to wait another four years for changes to a program that hasn’t been updated in years? While the Tories have promised to make improvements to EIA, there’s no expectation anything will be put in place quickly — only more consultation. The prospect of waiting longer makes Ross sad, but as she told me wistfully, "Nothing happens overnight."

That’s true, but nothing seems to happens a lot on this particular file. It’s time someone picked up the pace.

Shannon Sampert is a consultant and a retired political scientist.

s.sampert@uwinnipeg.ca

Twitter: @paulysigh

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