Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); }

Karyn Keith, seen here in her Brampton, Ont., home on Jan. 27, 2020, wants 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.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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

Still, some essentials fall through the cracks.

It’s time to unify the disability movement

There’s a moulding 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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

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.

Story continues below advertisement

“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.”

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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, a wheelchair user with multiple disabilities that impact their mobility and cognition, 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 cognitive disorder that affects how they process auditory information, 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?”

Editor’s note: August 12, 2020: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized one of romham gallacher's disabilities by referring to it as a hearing condition. In fact, gallacher has a disorder that affects how they process auditory information.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Coronavirus information
Coronavirus information
The Zero Canada Project provides resources to help you manage your health, your finances and your family life as Canada reopens.
Visit the hub

Follow related topics

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies