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Putting People with Disabilities at the Centre of Pandemic Recovery
Story by Stacey McLachlan
Illustration by Ashley Mackenzie
Neil Belanger is not surprised at all that people with disabilities were impacted more severely by the pandemic. “Persons with disabilities have always faced systemic poverty,” says Belanger, the executive director of the BC Aboriginal Network on Disability Society. “They’ve been marginalized and largely ignored.”
Now, as BC slowly moves into reopening, critics say the disabled community continues to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and the ripple effect of lockdown, even as the rest of the province looks hopefully to the future.
Disability income should be at least $2,400 a month
“During [COVID-19], persons with disabilities experienced increased isolation. There was more limited access to transportation, or to places where they’d access the internet or meet socially,” says Belanger. For those with disabilities, the shutting down of services and massive job losses meant less support, higher expenses, and magnified mental-health issues. Beyond widespread financial support like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the province did take broader measures to help people with disabilities, including a temporary $300.00 bump that is now permanently capped at $175.00. For someone with medical or service expenses beyond the typical able-bodied person, it’s simply not enough. “We believe anyone on disability income should be getting $2,400 a month at a minimum,” says Belanger.
The pandemic’s effects on the Accessible BC Act
Disability activists aren’t quietly accepting this lack of consideration and support. Many community members are still reeling from the devastating effects of the pandemic, and now there’s a new layer of vigour in the fight for inclusion. Sam Turcott, Executive Lead for the Accessibility Directorate for BC’s Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, has gotten a great deal of feedback from the disability community and has used that insight to help inform new BC accessibility legislation.
“We heard loud and clear about the concern for available support,” says Turcott. For many, it wasn’t just about losing work: It was about the disproportionate impact of things like social distancing and essential hospital visitor policies, which particularly affect those who might have multiple caretakers in their lives. While Turcott and team had begun working on the legislation in 2019, COVID-19 provided an important case study and impacted the final Accessible BC Act, which received royal assent in June 2021.
The new legislation “establishes a framework for people to work with people in the community to identify and remove barriers,” Turcott explains. It’s a move to take accessibility from a law in the books to something that has an impact on people’s real lives — whatever that might look like. “It’s such a diverse community,” acknowledges Turcott. “There’s no monolithic solution, which is part of the challenge. But ultimately what we want is to move, not just back to the way things were, but to a world that’s more inclusive and equitable.”
A four-in-five chance of a disability in your lifetime
Considering how widespread disability is, it remains shocking how low-priority issues of accessibility and social support are. Twenty-four percent of the Canadian population between ages 45 and 64 identify as having a disability. But as we age, we’re likely to eventually join this cohort — that number jumps to almost 50 percent by the time we hit retirement age. All in all, 80 percent of Canadians will live with a disability in their lifetime. Even those most able-bodied people can likely think of a family member, friend, or colleague who currently experiences disability.
“Whether you live with it or not, you have a stake in this game,” says Belanger. “We have to change as a country. Let’s put persons with a disability as our first priority for once.”
The Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction established the Disability Supports for Employment Fund at Vancouver Foundation in 2003 to increase the economic and social independence of people with disabilities.