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11 April, 2024

Ottawa: Fund the Canada Disability Benefit this budget cycle

By Senator Brett Cotter and Rabia Khedr April 11, 2024

Bill C-22, federal legislation to create the Canada Disability Benefit (CDB), passed unanimously in Parliament last June, with the expectation that the benefit would flow within a year. But the government has yet to allocate funding for it or fully flesh out how it will operate. Each day that passes threatens to push disabled people further into poverty and a sense of hopelessness.

In a surprising and positive affirmation of support for Canada’s disability community, more than 60 Liberal Members of Parliament just signed an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance to ‘budget the benefit.’ They call for the ‘immediate funding’ of the CDB and emphasize that the benefit be a ‘substantive and meaningful amount’ in line with the policy intention of lifting tens of thousands of Canadians with disabilities out of poverty.

The truth is people with disabilities have much to contribute to our communities but not if they are constantly battling a poverty crisis. We need not only disability without poverty but disability with possibility.

“I just want to live out my full potential and have the means to do that.” “It would revolutionize my life, making basic necessities accessible rather than luxuries.” These are among the comments that people with disabilities shared in a newly released report, Disability with Possibility: What We Learned from Disabled People Across Canada on Shaping the Canada Disability Benefit, highlighting the ways the federal government’s CDB could transform their lives.

If properly funded, the CDB would lift disabled people above the poverty line, restore their dignity and give them more autonomy. Not only would people with disabilities thrive, the country as a whole would benefit from their increased contributions.

For this to happen, though, the government must recognize the CDB as an investment in people and their potential rather than a cost. This means funding it in this federal budget cycle in a way that will make a difference.

While provincial and territorial governments provide some financial support, none of their disability assistance payments raises people above the poverty line.  Forty-one per cent of low-income Canadians are disabled and 16.5 per cent of disabled people in Canada live in poverty – that is more than 1.5 million people.

People with disabilities – especially those with severe disabilities – are less likely to be employed than others and have lower incomes even when working full time.  For disabled people, poverty is often a bigger barrier to their participation in society than their disability.

Many struggle to afford not only everyday costs of living, but also disability-related expenses — equipment, medications, therapies and transportation. These extra costs can push individuals with disabilities into poverty or prevent them from escaping it.

A well-funded CDB will offer a lifeline, allowing disabled people to break free from the constraints of poverty and live proud and productive lives.

It could improve their health by giving them better access to healthier food, life-saving equipment not covered by insurance and needed medications and health services — such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy — not covered under public health plans.

It could make it easier to pay rent or mortgages, preventing homelessness and allowing people to live independently. The CDB could also enable people to gain greater financial stability and set aside money for future needs — including their senior years or their children’s education.

By more actively participating in society — through education, employment, volunteering or other ways – disabled people could contribute more to Canada’s economy, benefitting everyone. And by helping to pull people out of poverty, the CDB could also reduce the health and social services costs that result from the spiral of poverty and related crises.

It could help people access necessary transportation for medical appointments, work or other activities, enhancing their health and independence and helping them take part in community life.

It could also improve people’s dignity and self-confidence by helping them afford personal care items, including haircuts and new clothes.

Being able to afford these expenses and having extra money to participate in community activities and enjoy hobbies or other fun things would build hope and resilience. Freed from the constraints of a constant struggle to survive, disabled people could begin to consider the possibilities of what their life could be.

The CDB is an investment well worth making. However, for it to reach its potential, the government must properly fund and structure it in this federal budget, heeding the voices of people with disabilities.  Poverty should not be an inevitable outcome of disability.

Brent Cotter is a senator for Saskatchewan. He was the sponsor of Bill C-22 in the Senate; Rabia Khedr is the national director of Disability Without Poverty and a former Ontario Human Rights Commissioner.

This OpEd appeared in The Province on April 11, 2024.

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