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20 September, 2021

Disability Poverty is More Expensive than Justice

By Gj Huxley

If I told you that being disabled was expensive, I’m guessing you wouldn’t be surprised. According to a recent Angus Reid poll, most Canadians are aware that being disabled means higher costs of living, and higher rates of poverty. Roughly half of those surveyed estimated that one-in-three disabled Canadians are poor. This is a remarkably good guess, with the same poll results showing that one-in-five disabled Canadians reports “struggling to get by”, while that number rises to one-in-three for Canadians living with “severe disability.”

While this data is reassuring in that it shows non-disabled Canadians are sympathetic to the issue of disability poverty, I wonder how many are aware of the complex and systemic nature of the problem. The costs of disability go beyond the costs of accommodations and assistive devices. They are built into the fabric of our society.

Let me offer one example from my own life. I knew when I decided to pursue an undergraduate degree that it would be challenging to keep up with the demands of university. As an invisibly disabled student and a single parent, I was grateful for the accommodations that allowed me to succeed academically, but I still faced expenses that my non-disabled peers did not, even though we accessed the same service.

In Ontario, where I studied, disabled students are permitted to take a reduced course load while remaining registered as full-time students. Full-time registration is required in order to be eligible for a variety of loans, bursaries, and grants. There is no way I could have kept up with my health needs, my obligations as a parent, and my degree requirements without this accommodation that allowed me to access financial supports while studying at a reasonable pace.

What I didn’t realize when I started my degree was that, even if I wasn’t taking a full course load, I would still have to pay full-time fees in tuition every semester, and eventually I would have to make up the extra courses in order  to graduate. I had two options: take an extra year to complete my degree or take summer courses and graduate on time. Both options would mean paying more in tuition. Eager to move on from academia and find a suitable career, I chose the latter.

In hindsight having permission to take a reduced course load, while helpful, was quite costly. While most students take a break from studies, get a job, and maybe save up some money over the summer months, I was taking out extra student loans to pay for a third semester of tuition every year. My plan worked – I was able to graduate on time, and with flying colours too – but the student loans I had accumulated over that four-year period were nearly double the amount accrued by my non-disabled peers.

While I am grateful for the accommodations I received in university, and very proud of my academic achievement against tall odds, it is not a sign of a fair and just society that students with disabilities face higher costs than their non-disabled peers when trying to access higher education, something that should be equally accessible to everyone.

There were also emotional costs involved, like having to defend my identity against suspicious professors who seemed convinced that I was just lazy and faking a mental health condition. Or giving up time with my son and enlisting my family to meet his childcare needs so that I could go to class, study, and pass my exams. 

Whether a person’s disability is invisible or visible, whether we require assistive devices or accommodations or not, there are always unseen barriers and costs that are built into the structure of our institutions, and which most non-disabled Canadians will never notice. These costs illustrate one of the many reasons why I support the creation of a national disability benefit program that seeks to end disability poverty in Canada. The need for such a program is urgent and will offer many Canadians the simple dignity of being able to meet the demands of daily life, like going to school, paying off loans, starting a career, and raising a family. Importantly, this will also benefit the rest of Canada as well. Income support provided to disabled Canadians will quickly find its way circulating through the economy as we become more empowered to contribute to our communities.

Disabled Canadians are not looking for a free hand-out. We are looking for justice, for dignity, and a society that offers an equal opportunity to succeed alongside our non-disabled peers. Any future government should therefore implement a Canadian Disability Benefit program without delay. Far from being unaffordable or costly, it is a wise investment into a future where disabled Canadians are no longer left behind.

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