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10 January, 2024

British Columbians living with disabilities are begging to be heard

By Kat Wong-Perrotta

December 2023 marked the first December in three years that I have not spent languishing in pain in a hospital bed. Since 2020, I have suffered from an inconceivably painful back injury that included torn ligaments, arthritis, and three herniated discs in my spine. It has kept me from going to work full-time, rendering me an ostensible prisoner in my own home. 

And over the last three years, I have sought help from my doctor, from specialists, from hospital emergency staff—and received little to no care. I waited to speak to a neurosurgeon for over a year, only to be told that I was not, in fact, a good candidate for surgery (as I stood standing in his office, leaning desperately on a walker for support, since I could not walk without a mobility aid). He said I should try losing weight instead. 

Because I had been unable to work full-time at a “proper” job and forced to take on piecemeal gigs as a writer (and matchmaker, for a while, but that’s another story), my income was never constant, and I saw my bank account’s totals dwindling. After all, I still needed to pay my household bills, and cover medical costs for specialists. I tried to apply for assistance but was rejected because my wife’s savings account was over a certain number. Does the government expect my wife to shoulder my medical costs? I wondered. How can we live on only one income if my disability is costing more than we can handle? Is she supposed to empty her savings for me? That’s not right.

I continued struggling to find work in a post-pandemic world that was sending everyone “back to the office!” My disability was a barrier to landing meaningful, full-time employment; cobbling together odd jobs that paid barely enough to cover a therapy session, I marched (metaphorically, of course, because I could not walk) on. 

Mine is not the only story like this—of injury, and waiting, and defeat, and dancing on the edge of poverty. 

I have since landed a job with Disability Without Poverty’s BC branch, and part of my work includes interviewing British Columbians about their experiences with disability. Through these discussions, a common thread has emerged—and it is tattered, tired, and pulled to its limit.

Nearly 15 per cent of people in British Columbia are living with a disability in some capacity, and we are all begging to be heard. 

Heard by family and friends who dismiss our pain; heard by general practitioners who do not see the urgency in our cases; heard by specialists for whom we have waited months or years to see; heard by our government that continues to rely on outdated protocols for our assistance.

One person I spoke with applied for disability assistance through the BC portal at least four times before giving up, facing rejection each time because she was on the edge of the criteria to be accepted. She came away empty-handed and frustrated by the lack of pathways to assist people in her situation.

Another interviewee has lived with disabilities since birth and has worked hard to overcome the many physical and mental barriers he’s faced his whole life; the minimal assistance he receives from the government is barely enough for him to afford groceries for the month—especially these days, when a small weekly shopping trip can cost as much as $150. 

Yet another interview subject discussed her dismay over being unable to access trans-inclusive healthcare or adequate monetary support for the unique needs of the trans community in BC, citing their increased medical costs for therapies and surgeries.

All across this province, disabled people are at a fundamental disadvantage, and no one seems to care. Partaking in these interviews taught me one thing, with crystal-clear clarity: disabled folks are suffering, and starving for someone to listen to them and their needs.

Introduced as a proposed initiative in 2020, the Canada Disability Benefit aims to alleviate some of this suffering through a tax-free cash supplement—not unlike CERB, but with some key differences—and is poised to help the over 6.2 million Canadians who identify as disabled (1.4 million of whom live in poverty). 

But now, four years later, there’s been little to no movement on the development of this proposed initiative—which is why organizations like Disability Without Poverty have been working hard to get the government’s attention through postcard campaigns, grassroots outreach, and a nationwide survey on disability.

The government must be made to see how the most marginalized folks in BC and across Canada are struggling to make ends meet, and be moved to get the Canada Disability Benefit signed, sealed, and delivered to those who need help the most. Before it’s too late.

Kat Wong-Perrotta is the Administrative Consultant for Disability Without Poverty’s BC branch.

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