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Lorraine Fay worries about her future. The 63-year-old suffers from diabetes, fibromyalgia and post-traumatic stress disorder and relies on disability payments to pay her bills. “I am worried, having zero savings,” she says. “My retirement is hard to think about.”

A resident of London, Ont., Ms. Fay receives $1,176.47 a month from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), which includes a diabetes allowance. She spends $497 of that on rent, with her employer subsidizing the rest of the $835 monthly total. What’s left goes toward food, utilities, medicine and other living expenses.

She also earns $23.60 an hour as a part-time peer support worker with the Canadian Mental Health Association, but her ODSP payments are reduced once her income hits $200 a month. Half of the net monthly earnings above that threshold is deducted from support payments.

For now, Ms. Fay is taking it day by day. “Today, I work with what I have to make sure today’s the best it can be,” she says. " But tomorrow I can’t even think of.

Many disabled Canadians struggle to secure benefits that could alleviate the financial hurdles they face. Either the supports aren’t promoted, involve administrative hurdles or take months to be approved. Often, family members are forced to navigate the complex application process – or rely on disability consultants. Further complicating things, the provinces differ greatly in what they offer.

But there are financial vehicles in Canada where people with disabilities and their families can save for the future. And financial aids for people with disabilities exist across the country. The challenge, in part, is that they’re hard to find.

In June, the federal government introduced Bill C-35, the Canada Disability Benefit Act, in the House of Commons. Its stated goal was to establish a new Canada Disability Benefit (CDB) that would lift disabled Canadians out of poverty.

Before it could pass, a federal election was called, which means the bill will need to be reintroduced in the new Parliament. The government also offered Canadians a one-time disability payment last fall because of the pandemic. And it launched a Disability Inclusion Action Plan, using public feedback to develop an improved employment strategy for Canadians with disabilities.

Before someone can receive a disability benefit, they have to qualify for the disability tax credit, a non-refundable tax credit that helps Canadians with disabilities or those who financially support them reduce the amount of income tax they may have to pay. In 2020, the maximum disability amount was $8,576, with a maximum additional credit of $5,003 for those under 18.

Is it enough? According to the 2017 Canadian Survey of Disabilities, nearly 850,000, or 21 per cent, of working-age Canadians with disabilities live in poverty. “The need is huge,” says Graeme Treeby, a disability consultant with Bright Futures Ability Network in Toronto, adding the ODSP monthly maximum for a single person is $1,169 a month. Keep in mind that the average monthly rent of a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto is $1,989. The average rent nationally is $1,763 a month.

Mr. Treeby is cautiously optimistic about Bill C-35. “My concern is: How will the provincial governments react to any inflow of funding to individuals? If the province deducts federal funding from provincial then there would be no benefit to people with disabilities.”

Regardless of Bill C-35′s outcome, Mr. Treeby suggests the first thing people with disabilities or their families should do is apply for federal benefits, and then set up places to grow these assets.

The first move is to establish a Henson trust, a tool that protects provincial disability benefits. This trust ensures a child with a disability can receive an inheritance and still get government disability funding. It involves appointing a trustee who will manage a disabled person’s inheritance, with legal control of a person’s assets held by the trust.

A registered disability savings plan (RDSP) can help save for the long-term financial security of a disabled person who is eligible for the DTC. Contributions to an RDSP are not tax deductible and can be made until a beneficiary turns 59 – to a maximum of $200,000.

In a Canada Disability Savings Grant, the federal government gives matching grants of up to 300 per cent, depending on a beneficiary’s family income and contribution, up to a maximum of $3,500 a year, with a lifetime limit of $70,000. Matching grants are paid into the RDSP on contributions until a disabled person turns 49.

Other options involve investing money received as part of an inheritance. Because the ODSP is means tested, those people who earn more than $40,000 don’t qualify, Mr. Treeby says. So if a disabled person were to inherit $140,000, for example, they would lose ODSP coverage. However, “they can put up to $100,000 in segregated funds – those are exempt up to $100,000 – without loss of entitlement to ODSP,” he says.

Ron Malis, a Toronto-based financial adviser with Independent Financial Concepts Group, works closely with the disability community. He is well aware of how complicated application processes can be. “Get the right professionals involved,” he says, such as a lawyer and power of attorney.

Capitalizing on other benefits

Collette Griffin, a Toronto-based mother of two adult sons with disabilities, has relied heavily on Ontario’s Passport Program, which offers adults with disabilities funding for community participation services and supports activities of daily living. She says it paid for a support worker for one of her sons.

Ms. Griffin’s sons also qualify for internet and transportation discounts. Rogers offers deep discounts for people with disabilities under its Connected for Success program.

And people with disabilities in her city can utilize the Toronto Transit Commission’s Fair Pass program, paying $2.10 a ride. In Ottawa, Para Transpo, a service for people unable to take conventional transit, offers discounted transportation for those with disabilities.

ODSP also covers transportation costs above $15 a month to attend medical appointments, and covers meals during those visits. Under ODSP, people with disabilities can be approved for a special diet allowance to a maximum of $250 a month.

The program also covers orthotics, certain medications and eyewear, Mr. Malis says.

On the academic front, the Canada Student Grant for Services and Equipment for Persons with Permanent Disabilities provides funding of up to $20,000 for each loan year to assist students with disabilities in overcoming educational barriers. And Disability Alliance BC provides free legal advice for B.C. residents.

There are also more than 100 grants for homeowners with disabilities, and the RRSP Home Buyers’ Plan can allow someone to withdraw $25,000 from a registered retirement savings plan to buy or build a new home for themselves or another person with a disability. While the HBP typically applies to first-time home buyers, in cases where someone is disabled, that stipulation is waived. The Residential Access Modification Program provides a grant of up to $7,500 for home modifications to increase accessibility.

Mr. Malis says that despite the benefits Canadians with disabilities can access, there needs to be a federal infusion of money. “It’s like running a race without shoes,” he says.

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