By Al Etmanski
I want to talk about something all too ordinary in Canada. It’s something that destroys the soul, the poverty of far too many Canadians with a disability. This has to end. No Canadian with a disability should be poor. No Canadians with a disability need to be poor. Ending this should not be a dream. Should not be a side-of-the-desk task. It should be a national commitment.
Poverty is the result of a cultural societal mindset that doesn’t appreciate that we need the contribution of every person with a disability. That Canada, and the topsy turvy world we live in, needs the toughness, the ingenuity, the inventiveness, the innovation and the resilience of persons with disabilities. But access to that talent won’t happen if people don’t have the financial means to engage, problem solve and help change the world.
What’s the point of having an accessible Canada if you:
• Can’t earn a living
• Are subject to restrictions of a welfare system that claws back your earnings, limits your assets and treats you as someone who will scam the system
• Live in a part of Canada where income assistance isn’t enough to keep pace with basic costs of living
• Don’t have the money to spend once you get inside a grocery store, restaurant, movie theatre or department store
• Don’t have the means to get to events like a conference, to assemble and organize with your sisters and brothers to ensure that there is nothing about us without us.
The surest way to become poor in Canada is to have a disability. We all know the stats—more Canadians with a disability live below the poverty line, are unemployed or part of the working poor, than any other group. It’s time to make ending poverty for Canadians with a disability a national priority. It’s time for a wild leap. One that takes us over the status quo. A leap that takes us over the policy wonks who tell us it’s too complex a task; the scare mongers who say you will lose your existing benefits; the service providers who want you to believe that their programs and services are all you need if you have a disability; and all the naysayers who can’t imagine that having money and making your own choices on what to spend it on is the very definition of agency and power. The reality is that the current hodgepodge of our welfare program serves to keep people poor—and no amount of tinkering will change that.
It’s perfectly possible to preserve the key benefits people already receive (medical, dental, transportation, housing subsidies, disability supports) and also supplement it with a national top-up. AND bring people out of poverty. A full-scale national approach to ending poverty has been done before:
• For seniors: Guaranteed Income Supplement virtually eliminated poverty for seniors when it was introduced while preserving all their existing benefits.
• For children: The Canada Child Benefit is helping to eliminate poverty among children.
Here are six actions to consider as you begin your discussions:
1) Reform eligibility for Disability Tax Credit; Improve RDSP payouts ex: end the 10 year hold back; Create automatic enrollment in federal programs including the RDSP. Qualifying for provincial/territorial disability benefits should be sufficient to qualify for federal benefits.
2) Examine the lessons of Basic Income around the world including the pilots in Ontario. Pay attention to their underlying values (EX: portability, predictability, maintenance of existing benefits, focus on working poor and those unable to work.)
3) A Canadian expert on Basic Income for people with disabilities is Alexandra Creighton. Her recent thesis reviewed the benefits of Basic Income for people with disabilities and discussed it with a human rights framework.
4) Create a national table among provinces, territories, the federal government and people with disabilities. If the federal government won’t take that role on, then let’s organize our own federal-provincial-territorial meeting. That’s what we did at PLAN in order to ensure every province and territory eliminated claw-back and waived asset limits for the RDSP. The feds didn’t want to interfere in social assistance programs because they are a provincial jurisdiction. So we held the conference and invited the federal and provincial governments to the table. They all came. And asked us to convene another one.
5) Host a summit meeting with anti-poverty/social housing advocacy groups. The purpose: to ensure the poverty of people with disabilities is on their agenda, and that people with disabilities are part of their leadership.
6) Rally cultural leaders including artists, dancers, singers and songwriters on behalf of this big challenge. They know how to connect the head and the heart. We’ll need their help because, as I mentioned at the beginning, the poverty of people with disabilities. I’m thinking of people like the great singer-songwriter broadcaster writer Christa Couture, and Luca Patuelli, who is a world renowned hip hop dancer better known as BBoy Lazylegz.
Let me conclude by clarifying: I am not for one moment suggesting a pilot project to deal with the scourge of poverty experienced by people with disabilities. Monique Begin—a former federal Minister of Health and Social Development—once reflected that Canada is a country of pilot projects. That’s all we do. She said that, for the most part, the lessons and benefits of pilots never spread or scale-up. And, as such, we are doomed to start pilot project after pilot project.
The RDSP showed the way. That it is possible to leap over the status quo. Of low expectations and welfare mindsets. It’s time to have a decent bank account balance; credit status; a thicker wallet and the agency that comes from being an economic citizen. It’s time for a shift in the lives of people with disabilities—from welfare to wealth, and out of poverty to prosperity. It’s time to restore people’s souls. It’s time to have a National Guaranteed Annual Basic Income Supplement for people with disabilities.
Al Etmanski is a community organizer, social entrepreneur and author.