It’s time for national conversations on disability to include race and ethnicity

By Meenu Sikand

Many of us in the disability community are equal parts optimistic and skeptical about the proposed Canada Disability Benefit (CDB). 

We’ve been played before. But a recent Angus Reid poll has given us cause for hope.  

In overwhelming numbers, Canadians revealed support for the proposed CDB (89 per cent), believe both our federal and provincial governments are not doing enough for persons with disabilities (59 per cent), and think the new benefit should proceed with haste (74 per cent) and be set above the poverty line (63 per cent). Canadians, the poll shows, believe poverty and disability should not coexist in a country as wealthy as Canada. They are right. But that’s not the full portrait.

What’s been missing from the national conversation so far is how race intersects with disability to keep racialized persons with disabilities marginalized, invisible and impoverished. Any new disability benefit must take into account these intersecting lived realities, so that the benefit reaches the very people it is proposed to help.  

As a South Asian woman with an acquired spinal cord injury, I need a power wheelchair, an accessible house and a van for my employment and daily living activities. My household includes living with parents, in addition to my husband and son. This is my cultural norm—multi-generational living—yet this norm is often a barrier to accessing disability benefits or accessibility funds as they are tied to household income. 

Current disability policies rooted in western definitions of family and built into welfare models force disabled Canadians to live alone or forgo their safety net if they choose to marry or share a household with other adult wage earners. 

Many racialized communities, including Asian, Black and Indigenous families, frequently live in extended family structures where all adults work, often earning lower wages. However, combined household income may disqualify the person with a disability from benefits and promote social exclusion. 

I know first-hand how quickly the costs of living with disabilities add up. Cost of manual wheelchairs range from $8,000 to $10,0000, and power wheelchairs, from $32,000 to $45000. An accessible vehicle means purchasing a van plus $40,000 to modify it. Even when, in some provinces, up to 75 per cent of purchasing mobility aids is covered, the remaining 25 per cent is a hardship for many. These are not one-time expenses.

Then there are issues of awareness and access to information in a timely manner. Newcomer families are often unaware of existing disability supports. This may lead to undue financial hardship among families and fuel the stereotype that people with disabilities are a burden on families. 

It’s imperative that the proposed CDB be accessible and reach all disabled Canadians, particularly those who may not speak English or French as their first language. Inclusive outreach and engagement must include Black, Indigenous, and other racialized and immigrant communities. Through my work at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, I’ve heard from many new immigrants who were unaware of existing disability supports and missed out on essential therapies for their kids. This must change when we introduce the new federal Disability Benefit.

Disability leaders, too, have long overlooked the unique needs of racialized Canadians with disabilities and have made little efforts to engage them. It’s time we change this.  

Disability belongs to an individual but impacts the whole family. Any new CDB must prioritize engaging racialized communities throughout the process of creation and roll out, or too many Canadian families will continue to be excluded. 

Meenu Sikand is founder of Accessibility for All, an organization dedicated to amplify BIPOC-D voices, and the Executive Lead, EDI for the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. In 2020, Meenu was inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame.

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