Poverty and Disability During the COVID-19 Pandemic - An Addendum to COVID-19 and Disability: Recommendations to the Canadian Government from Disability Civil Society Organizations in Canada

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Over 20% of Canadians have a disability. Individuals with disabilities face higher than average rates of unemployment, between 35% for people with “mild” disabilities and 74% for people with “severe” disabilities. Overall, people with disabilities are more than twice as likely than the general population to be living in poverty. Similarly, parents of children with disabilities, including those whose adult children with disabilities are living with them, incur higher rates of diminished employment. Under-employment rates for parents ranges from 40% for those whose children have “mild” disabilities to 70% for those whose children have “severe” disabilities.

On the best of days, having a disability or supporting a family member with a disability can be costly. During a pandemic, when people with disabilities and their families are having to self-isolate, step away from work, make alternative arrangements for the therapies, care, and support that is normally provided in the community or through the school system, stock up on food and medical supplies, and shift to living life at home, costs are spiking.

Even before COVID-19 struck, many people with disabilities were living precariously. As is well documented in the Concluding Observations to Canada from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, that precarity is profoundly amplified if you are Indigenous, a woman, racialized, from the LGBQT2S+ community, a child with a disability, rural, northern, and/or Deaf, when seen through an intersectional lens.

In response to COVID-19, a great number of Canadians are relying on the savings they set aside for this rainy day and planning to access relief funds. People with disabilities who do not have these financial resources are falling through the cracks in Canada’s COVID-19 response to date. People with disabilities and their families require both short-term immediate investments in their financial security and long-term solutions to existing inequities.

In wrestling with how best to meet the financial needs of people with disabilities, Canada must consider how information is being disseminated and in what languages. The population of people with disabilities in Canada is diverse and requires a variety of communication supports to stay informed of policies that impact their wellbeing. Further, like many other low-income groups, people with disabilities often get access to information out in the community, by visiting their local public library or community centre for example. With these spaces being closed, staying informed is challenging.

In order to reduce the financial burden of COVID-19 to the disability community, we are asking the Government of Canada to:

  • Provide non-prescriptive financial assistance to people with disabilities and their families to be used at their discretion to provide for things like at-home care and personal support services, food, shelter, therapy, etc.
  • Enhance the capacity and resiliency of disability civil society organizations1 and groups to reach and assist people with disabilities and their families who are isolated
  • Collaborate with partners in the provinces, territories, and private sector to promote service delivery
  • Protect the employment of people with disabilities and their families

In creating a policy package for people with disabilities in Canada, the Federal Government should ensure, at a minimum, that these goals are met.

In responding to COVID-19 and the financial needs of people with disabilities, it is crucial that governments be guided by the following basic values:

  • Nothing About Us Without Us - ensure that people with disabilities and their families2 and their civil society organizations have a seat at the table in designing measures to promote their wellbeing.
  • No New Barriers - having a disability should not make it more difficult (directly - because of communication barriers, or indirectly - because of unemployment or low income for example) for people living in Canada to access supports or emergent responses.
  • Disability Rights are Human Rights - In this moment of crisis, Canada must apply an intersectional lens that centres disability to all emergent responses. It remains crucial that the Government of Canada issue a national values statement affirming the equal rights of persons with disabilities to available medical treatment and care in circumstances of pandemic triage.
  • Disability Networks Provide Lifelines - Civil society organizations supporting people with disabilities must be considered valuable members of the COVID-19 emergency response team. Beyond providing direct support services to people with disabilities and their families, these organizations can enhance public promotion efforts by producing and disseminating accessible information and communications about the benefits provided by the federal and provincial/territorial governments to those who need it most using both formal and informal networks. Disability organizations have the formal and informal networks to: reach people who are isolated, disconnected from information and others who have difficulty understanding and responding to information; support people through self-isolation as needed; and, assist people in accessing available benefits and health and community services as they require it. However, many organizations have been forced to shut down their fund-raising activities and programs, leaving gaps in operational funds and capacity at a time when these are most needed.

Operating principles and priorities:

  • Act quickly
  • Prioritize accessible information and communication
  • Adopt clear and concise eligibility criteria
  • Where feasible, make use of existing programs to help reduce administrative burden
  • Do not tax new income measures
  • Dissuade provinces from clawing back assistance payments or other related benefits (e.g., housing subsidies; childcare subsidies; income benefits)
  • Ensure outreach to people with disabilities and families who are socially isolated, disconnected and ‘off-line’, either short-term because of community program closures or long-term because of entrenched poverty and exclusion.
  • When speaking to people with disabilities, name them as distinct rights holders

Policy Options:

A. Short-term options - People with Disabilities and their Families

Note: The first two options are designed to get money into the hands of people with disabilities and their families. Options #1 is the most expeditious and is preferable because the benefits could be accessed by most (if not all) people with disabilities. However, it may be more expensive because of the numbers of Canadians who potentially would qualify. Option #2 may be less costly; however, it is most complex in terms of expeditious rollout.

  1. Make the new Canada Emergency Response Benefit More Inclusive and Equitable
  • Ensure that persons with disabilities and parents/caregivers can qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. The application process for both benefits has been simplified from when they were first announced, which is good. But the $5,000 employment earnings requirement in the new benefit will be a major barrier for many persons with disabilities and for caregivers.
  • If the government feels that a ‘screen’ is necessary in order to streamline eligibility, then it can require anyone without the minimum required employment earnings to make a declaration to the effect that they are a recipient of a relevant federal or provincial disability-related program including: the Disability Tax Credit (DTC), Child Disability Benefit, disability supplement to the Canada Workers Benefit, Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP), veterans disability pension and long-term social assistance.
  • Further, provide direct financial support to people with disabilities through a disability-related top up to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit to offset the additional cost of living with - or raising a child with - a disability during the COVID-19 pandemic. During this health crisis, existing funding will not meet financial need.
  • Extend the availability of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (and disability-related top up) from 4 months to 9 months to provide peace of mind and stability to those who are in precarity.
  • Note: Recipients of the Canada Pension Plan disability benefit and workers’ compensation will likely not be considered eligible for these benefits because they are receiving an income benefit. The government must investigate whether the needs of people with disabilities receiving existing income benefits are being met and respond immediately.
  1. And/Or Top-up / Modify existing benefits
  • Modify the EI Caregiver Benefit to include caregivers of persons with disabilities and not just persons who are critically ill or injured or who require end-of-life care. Ensure that it is made available for caregiving related to COVID-19.
  • Enhance and rename the Child Disability Benefit to include those to age 30 and extend the benefit to more moderate-income families.
  • Enhance the disability supplement to the Canada Workers Benefit.
  • Allow a one-time early withdrawal from RDSP accounts to be used at the person’s discretion during the Covid-19 pandemic. All funds in the RDSP, including those acquired through a Matching Grant must be made available.
  • Extend the application window for the RDSP beyond the age of 49 to 50 (or higher depending on the length of the COVID-19 pandemic) as a grace period for those who have not been able to apply or contribute given the circumstances.
  • Waive the medical requirement for applying for the DTC or RDSP. If necessary, substitute for a non-medical assessment tool.
  • Extend the maximum duration for EI Sickness Benefit of 15 weeks to 26 weeks (as in the Minister’s mandate letter).
  • Help Indigenous peoples, including those with disabilities, to flee domestic violence by expanding the Non-Insured Health Benefits program (covering the costs of travel, hotels, and meals) to be applicable in cases where an Indigenous person and their children are escaping violence. This is particularly important for those who are living in remote communities.
  • Accessing shelters and transition houses is already a challenge for many women and girls with disabilities despite the fact they experience the highest rates of gender based violence in Canada! Funding targeted for shelters, especially those serving rural and remote regions during the COVID19 Pandemic should also include access to provincial and/or territorial funding, in some cases normally allocated for 'medi-vac' to ensure that anyone experiencing gender based or domestic violence can be safely transported to a safe location and provided with shelter and any disability-related supports. Setting up safe, accessible emergency housing and shelter and safe accessible transportation to that housing for people with disabilities should be a first priority in every community response to COVID-19.

B. Short-term options - Civil Society Organizations

  1. Provide federal contributions to increase response capacity of national-to-local disability organizations which can:
  • develop and disseminate public service messaging about government benefits and community responses in all accessible formats, and
  • provide needed outreach and support to isolated and disconnected people with disabilities and families.

Do this by:

  • Funding not-for-profit organizations to collaborate with the government to build a variety of COVID-19 messaging tools for the populations that we serve. Consider engaging those organizations receiving funding through the Enabling Accessibility Fund, or adding to other existing funding contracts. Take advantage of existing mailing lists such as those used for communication during the development of the Accessible Canada Act.
  • Funding not-for-profit organizations that provide direct disability supports and services and community navigation. Consider funneling funding through national civil society organizations with a federated structure.
  • Contributing to non-profit organizations the funds that they raised during 2019 to offset losses anticipated for 2020.
  • Honouring existing funding agreements between the Government of Canada and not-for-profit organizations serving people with disabilities.
  • Providing special funds to selected disability-related organizations that work specifically with Indigenous communities.
  • Providing funding, through the federal translation bureau, for the provision of ASL, LSQ, and ISL for the interpretation of information relating to COVID-19. The Deaf community would like reassurance that communities will be able to continue to communicate vital pandemic-related information with full interpretation as budgets throughout this health crisis.

C. Short-term options - Partnership Opportunities

  1. Partner with the Private Sector
  • Partner with a national telecom private sector partner to provide funding, equipment and technical assistance to disability organizations to enhance their capacity to communicate online.
  • Partner with regional transportation providers (be they in the private sector or owned by municipalities) to expand access to accessible transportation.
  1. Add to the Canada Social Transfer
  • Provide for a temporary two-year supplement through the Canada Social Transfer targeted at income support for low-income persons on social/disability assistance. As an emergency response, leave this transfer relatively open ended, but encourage the provinces and territories to work with civil society organizations supporting people with disabilities in allocating the funds within their province.

D. Short-term options - Employment Security

  1. Provide Financial Support to Facilitate People with Disabilities’ Return to Their Jobs After the Pandemic Crisis Passes

We want to ensure people with disabilities who are working maintain their employment. This can be tricky with new work from home practices – how can employers properly accommodate their workers? What information and support do people with disabilities need to be successful at home? What about those people with disabilities who have not disclosed their disability, and now they are in a situation that they need extra support from their employer?

  • Establish 1-800 number for support to employers
  • Create webinar series for employers to understand how best to support employees with disabilities working from home
  • Create extra capacity for existing programming to support people with disabilities to understand and self-advocate for accommodations while working from home. This funding can be flowed through the Opportunities Fund.
  • Create extra capacity for existing programming to work with a new clientele that are disclosing their disability to their employer

E. Long-term options

  • Make the DTC refundable.
  • Introduce a new Accessible Canada Transfer (ACT) through which federal investments to provinces/territories and to Indigenous organizations in one or a few specific priority areas:

                    - Income security (e.g., a top-up to long-term social assistance)
                    - Services for persons with disabilities and their families, including personal support workers, attendant care and other forms of personal
                    - The capacity of the voluntary organizations that comprise the disability sector
                    - A legislated right to disability supports

  • Introduce a new benefit for individuals over the age of 65 who have a disability or are still supporting family members with disabilities.

Presented by,

Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians
British Columbia Aboriginal Network on Disability Society
Canadian Association for Community Living
Canadian Association of the Deaf-Association des Sourds du Canada
Council of Canadians with Disabilities
Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work
DisAbled Women’s Network of Canada / Réseau d'Action des Femmes Handicapées du Canada (DAWN-RAFH Canada)
People First of Canada
Spinal Cord Injury Canada