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As a practising psychologist, I wish there existed a single resource where Canadians could familiarize themselves with the diverse social assistance programs funded by our taxes. Many of the families I work with need to be made aware of the available governmental support or guided through how to obtain it. And as a mother of a child with special needs, I myself was keen to learn about the Canada Disability Benefit introduced in the 2024 budget. So here is an overview of how to obtain the CDB – and other disability supports.

The new federal Canada Disability Benefit would pay an additional $2,400 a year – or $200 a month – to Canadians eligible for the existing Disability Tax Credit. They must also be aged 18 to 64 and live on a low income.

There are different ways to qualify for the Disability Tax Credit. When it is given for impairments in mental functions, the individual’s daily life must be markedly restricted 90 per cent of the time owing to a diagnosed mental condition that has lasted for at least a year. It can be challenging to interpret what “markedly restricted” means. One way to understand the term is that daily tasks take you three times longer to complete than someone of a similar age without the impairment, even with the right therapy, medication and devices.

When I see complex situations where there is more than one mental health or developmental diagnosis, I often question whether my patient is eligible for the DTC. I usually answer that question with an evaluation of adaptive functioning – how well a person handles typical life demands and how independent they are in everyday activities.

Suppose you believe that you or your child might qualify for the DTC owing to impairments in mental functions. The next step is to arrange for a psychological, psycho-educational or neuropsychological assessment conducted by a registered psychologist. If an evaluation indicates that a person is eligible, they can apply for the Disability Tax Credit.

Disability benefits can also be applied retrospectively. If there is clear evidence of when the challenge started, the psychologist can document that time, not just when the condition was diagnosed. Given that assessments can often take a long while, this is important to note, as you may be eligible for benefits going back several months or even years.

When a person is granted the Disability Tax Credit, they can open up a registered disability savings plan, intended to help with long-term financial security. Depending on the situation, other benefits may include eligibility to identify as a person with a disability on the Home Owners Grant, thereby reducing property taxes on a principal residence. Additionally, the therapies and support services that assist with the condition may be recognized as deductible medical expenses on personal income tax returns

Moreover, if a child has a diagnosed disability, it could lead to designation or identification as a student with special learning needs at school. Sometimes, schools receive extra funding from a provincial ministry of education when a student has severe or complex learning needs. The student’s school would develop a personalized learning plan, often called an individual education plan (or an individualized program plan in Alberta). It documents individualized goals, changes to learning and any extra help required. It also serves as a tool to monitor the student’s progress.

If you are a postsecondary student, having a diagnosed disability may qualify you for permanent disability funding, provided that you have applied and qualified for a student loan. This funding often includes financial assistance to acquire assistive technology. You may also be eligible to receive support services through your postsecondary institution’s centre for accessible learning, including academic accommodations such as later deadlines and extended exam times.

A documented disability may also enable a person to receive accommodations for entrance exams (such as LSAT or MCAT) to professional programs, and for postdegree professional exams to license in a particular profession. Further, a person may be eligible for workplace accommodations. In Canada, there is a duty to accommodate a disability, as Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains guaranteed equality rights.

The introduction of the Canadian Disability Benefit offers some relief for Canadians facing documented disabilities. Critics contend (and with good reason) that it falls short of adequately addressing the needs of this demographic. Nonetheless, for the families I work with, every little bit helps.

Dr. Jillian Roberts is a research professor of educational psychology at the University of Victoria. She is also a practising registered psychologist in B.C. and Alberta. She is known for her expertise in navigating the complexities of emotional and mental well-being.

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