The new Canada Disability Benefit (CDB), recently enshrined in legislation, will provide a new federal income supplement targeted to working-age people with disabilities. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to break the link between disability and poverty – but only if done right.

Canada must learn from past mistakes and build a benefit experience that leaves nobody behind. That’s why March of Dimes Canada and Prosper Canada have partnered on a new report: A Benefit without Barriers: Co-Creating Principles and Recommendations for Canada Disability Benefit Administration. It offers practical advice to the federal government on how to create an accessible and humane benefit.

People with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty than those without disabilities and make up over 40 per cent of Canada’s low-income population, according to Statistics Canada. The Maple Leaf Centre for Food Security says half of the individuals struggling with food insecurity have a disability.

There are several disability benefits available including the Canada Pension Plan – Disability (CPP-D), Disability Tax Credit (DTC), Veterans Disability Benefit and provincial/territorial disability income support programs. However, the current system of benefits and tax credits for people with disabilities falls short. And the toll it takes on those who try to obtain assistance can be exhausting, often punishing and even traumatizing.

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The Canada Pension Disability benefit  and provincial/territorial income benefit levels are set well below Canada’s national poverty line. Applicants for these benefits and the Disability Tax Credit need to navigate lengthy and complex application processes.

Applicants are also required to repeatedly prove through medical assessments that their disability renders them eligible, even in cases involving a permanent disability.

These processes are a challenge to many people with disabilities. There may be fees for documentation and medical assessments, making them expensive. For those who live in rural or remote communities, there are added travel costs.

In addition, most of the applications do not provide assistance to people facing language and literacy barriers as well as digital, mobility, cognitive, physical and/or mental-health barriers. In other words, they aren’t accessible to the very clients they presume to support.

Those with disabilities that have resulted from trauma like violence or abuse are often required to recount their experiences. This may lead to retraumatization, further aggravating their condition.

Because the application processes for both federal and provincial benefits are often overwhelming, people may give up. Cases of those who have persevered after being denied and then found eligible on appeal points to a broken process. Even those who are successful on the first try are often consigned to living in poverty.

Data on application failure and appeal rates are not consistently made available. Feedback from those who receive benefits suggest the system is not functioning as it should, with governments acting as gatekeepers rather than facilitators, while people with disabilities pay the price.

A 2015 Auditor General report on Canada Pension’s Disability program, which provides partial income replacement for CPP contributors (those who have been in the workforce), shows that more than half (57 per cent) of initial applications were denied in 2014-5.

Of those applications, over 13,000 appealed, and 35 per cent were then granted benefits. This is not indicative of a program that is working well.

March of Dimes Canada and Prosper Canada spoke with over 100 people with disabilities and an array of disability organizations to create principles that should guide the CDB.

  • Nothing about us without us: By involving people with disabilities the government can avoid creating benefit experiences that are frustrating, exhausting and dehumanizing.
  • Do no harm: By becoming more knowledgeable about the ways benefit design and administrative choices affect applicants and recipients, the government can ensure the processes do not harm the financial and mental health for both applicants and those receiving benefits.
  • Ensure equitable access: By removing barriers, the government can ensure everyone has access to and can retain their benefits.
  • Foster dignity: By framing people with disabilities as equally valued and contributing members of society, rather than dependents, the government can challenge stereotypes.
  • Minimize burden: By simplifying the process, providing help with navigation and enabling data sharing, government can remove the onus from applicants.
  • Foster trust and agency: By ensuring personnel are trained and meet the highest standards of accessible, compassionate and inclusive service, and by committing to consistency and transparency, the government can foster trust and agency in applicants and recipients.
  • Be timely and responsive: By launching the CDB as soon as possible, the government can extend a needed financial lifeline to those living below the poverty line.

The Canada Disability Benefit is a golden opportunity to provide an inclusive and accessible income support that enables people with disabilities to live with dignity as full participants in Canadian society. But it needs to be implemented correctly.

People with disabilities have been waiting far too long. It’s time to ensure their needs are met now.

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