Pellerin: So much for promises to create a Canadian disability benefit

Since 2020, the Liberal government has promised a new disability benefit modelled on the guaranteed income supplement for seniors. It hasn’t happened.

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There were very few mentions in news coverage of the recent federal budget of how promises made to people living with disabilities were flagrantly disrespected, to the general indifference of all. But being invisible and ignored hurts every time.

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In its 2020 speech from the throne, the Liberal government promised a new disability benefit modelled on the guaranteed income supplement for seniors. It has not yet happened.

A bill introduced in Parliament died on the order paper when the 2021 election was called. It was in the Liberal electoral platform and is also in the mandate letter for Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Minister Carla Qualtrough. It was not in the 2022 budget.

The only thing that made it is $272.6 million over five years for an employment strategy for people with disabilities. So we can support those who are already supporting themselves. Nice.

But what about those who live with the kind of disability that makes work extremely challenging or impossible? Are they just meant to, I don’t know, disappear?

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The day after the federal budget, I had a wonderful chat with Erin O’Neil, a former teacher in Ottawa who now volunteers her time raising awareness for those living on social assistance and Canadians like herself who are disabled.

I like Erin. She’s passionate and lively and we agree on many things. She didn’t ask me if I was disabled. As far as I think I know, I am reasonably able-bodied. But that’s not the same as “not disabled,” is it? And what’s “able” anyway? Why would I think of the person I’m speaking with as somehow less than what our ableist world says is “normal”? Why not focus instead on how unique everyone is? Or why, if that’s too radical for you, we put so much value on paid work. Talk about the visible taking up all the space in the conversation. Oh, a paycheque! I see that!

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For sure, work has its place, but why is it so important in defining who a person is and how much they should be worth? What about all the informal arrangements, such as people who plant flowers in gardens or volunteer at the festival every single year or are always there with a casserole for those in need of comfort?

“Given that the rates of social assistance are so low, and that disabled Canadians face so many barriers to enter the workforce,” Erin O’Neil says, “it’s time we recognize the vast amount of value that community care brings.”

In Ontario, people who live with disabilities are eligible to apply to the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) for financial assistance. It can take months to go through the process, and it involves a double qualification. First, you have to show that you are in financial need, and then if you qualify on that score you’ll be assessed to make sure your disability is real.

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If you pass both tests, you are eligible to receive up to $1,169 a month for your basic expenses if you are single. That’s … not a lot. Yet we check and double-check that people are truly, really, genuinely eligible for this paltry sum. We don’t stop to think about how dehumanizing the process is. We’re just tighter than bark on a tree.

To some extent we are all guilty of focusing unduly on monetary issues. There is so much more to talk about. Every person who lives with a disability has as much to offer society — often more — than most other people, precisely because they know the value of all this invisible work that makes things run smoothly and makes neighbourhoods feel like communities, not just piles of bricks.

We just have to slow down enough to notice all this work and treat it like the wonderful gift it is. Let’s make the invisible, finally, visible.

Brigitte Pellerin is an Ottawa writer.

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