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OP/ED: Report Highlights Desperate Circumstances for People Living on Disability Assistance in BC

The effects of provincial government policy are demoralizing for both people with disabilities and those who work within the income assistance system, says a new report released today for which people with disabilities and income assistance workers were surveyed.

Looking beyond the numbers to focus on real-life stories, Sharing Our Realities: Life on Disability Assistance in British Columbia finds a remarkable consensus between people with disabilities, income assistance workers, and even the findings of the government’s own disability consultation about what ails the system and what is needed to improve the lives of people with disabilities. The report, which surveyed people with disabilities and income assistance workers across the province, includes recommendations to increase income and disability assistance rates, simplify applications for income and disability assistance, and return to a system with individualized caseworkers.

“The message is that we don’t have enough for basics like food and shelter,” said Frank, who receives disability assistance, “and this makes our disabilities worse. We are losing our health. We are losing our homes. We are losing our lives. This is a crisis.”

Throughout 2016, Citizens for Accessible Neighbourhoods (CAN) was routinely contacted by people with disabilities who felt they had no voice or power in this province.

“People had participated in the 2014 government consultation, but felt that their comments and suggestions were ignored, written into papers, and then filed away,” said Heather McCain, Executive Director of CAN and the co-author of the report.

In response, CAN developed a survey for people on disability assistance and ministry workers, and the resulting report, Sharing Our Realities, aims to provide that voice, which is loud and clear.

“They need to actually implement everything people with disabilities and advocates and organizations have been telling them for years,” Rosa, who lives on disability assistance, said. “Read the White Paper [they] created and start at the first step (raise the rates) and go from there.”

Income assistance workers agree, but the report reveals that many feel like they did not have avenues in which they could share their thoughts and concerns about their ability to do their job.

“Income Assistance workers tell me all the time how powerless they now feel to actually make a difference in people’s lives within the current service delivery model,” says Doug Kinna, a British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union elected representative for Ministry social workers. “Things used to be different.”

Non-government agencies are bearing the weight of these gaps in service.

“This report accurately reflects the same comments TAPS legal advocates hear virtually every day from our clients,” said Kelly Newhook, Executive Director of the Together Against Poverty Society. “Clients report feeling degraded by staff at the Ministry of Social Development & Social Innovation, unable to trust the information provided by staff and, most importantly, they are struggling every day to survive on the low income assistance and disability rates in this province.”

The stories in the report demonstrate the inadequacy of the increases in disability assistance over the last two years and participants appeal to the government to provide a system based in dignity for people with disabilities.

Omar Chu, with the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition and co-author of the report, agrees, adding that “basic welfare, which many people with disabilities have to survive on before they access disability assistance, has now been frozen for a decade at $610 per month. Sharing these stories of hardship caused by lack of government action is part of our commitment to make poverty public. We need to significantly raise income assistance rates as part of a comprehensive poverty reduction plan for BC.”