Breaking Down Barriers is the title and galvanizing theme of a June 2018 report from the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. It recommends urgently needed measures to improve access to underutilized federal disability supports: the disability tax credit (DTC) and the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP).

The recommendations are broad in scope. They include streamlining the DTC and RDSP application processes and making eligibility criteria simpler and more appropriate. The report also recommends ensuring that relevant agencies are collecting data to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the DTC and the RDSP, as well as undertaking effective outreach to improve uptake.

The people who need these supports are among the most vulnerable members of our society, and yet they face multiple hurdles to get access to them. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) determines eligibility for the DTC, which is needed to set up an RDSP. The current criteria do not reflect the realities of living with a disability, and they are stricter for people with impairments in mental function than for those with physical disabilities. The burdensome application processes can include hidden costs, arbitrary eligibility decisions and opaque claims and appeals processes.

For Canadians with disabilities, who are almost twice as likely to live in poverty as other Canadians, programs like the RDSP are critical. The RDSP helps people with severe disabilities and their families to save for the future. At its creation in December 2008, the program was hailed as one of the most progressive savings plans in the world: it was the first savings vehicle to promote long-term financial security for people with disabilities. Yet today the reality is less favourable. Fewer than 15 percent of Canadians with qualifying disabilities are accessing this program.

Bureaucracy is the greatest barrier that needs to be “broken down.” More effective and transparent administration of the DTC by the Minister of National Revenue, Diane Lebouthillier, and the CRA is long overdue. Yet it does not make sense that we are tasking staff at the CRA with the complexities of determining eligibility for these programs in the first place. As the Senate report recommends, the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development and the Minister of Finance need to transfer the assessment process to Employment and Social Development Canada.

The lived experience of the extreme fragmentation of programs and supports is significant. If you are a Canadian living in low income with a severe disability, you have to prove your disability status to your provincial government to claim disability supports, and then “re-prove” your status to the federal government to gain eligibility to the DTC so that you can set up an RDSP. Completing these applications is not without cost; people can pay hundreds of dollars to their physicians to complete an application form certifying their disability (in some cases, every year) — and the eligibility criteria are out of sync with global standards of disability determination. As well, many bank branches simply do not support in-person set-up of the RDSP.

It is unclear why anyone who meets the strict criteria for provincial disability supports would not qualify for the DTC and the RDSP. One of the recommendations in the Senate report is that everyone in a provincial program for people with disabilities be enrolled automatically in an RDSP. For this to happen, collaboration between ministries and across different levels of government is needed. Yet sustained and effective action in this realm has remained more of a vision than a reality in Canada.

In the 1998 report In Unison: A Canadian Approach to Disability Issues, ministers stated, “There is much scope to improve the current patchwork of federal, provincial and territorial benefits and services. Work needs to be done at both levels of government to reduce the fragmentation of our supports and services. More effective and coordinated programs would better serve Canadians with disabilities and the country as a whole.”

Two decades on, disability supports in Canada remain disjointed, with widely varying practices and uneven accessibility, affordability and responsiveness. The lack of streamlining between eligibility for the DTC and provincial disability supports is just one example. The fact that relevant objectives from the In Unison report have turned up again in the 2018 Senate report demonstrates that effective action has failed to follow this intergovernmental vision.

How can we turn this dismal lack of action around to achieve more harmonized and accessible supports and services for people with disabilities? Does the federal Liberal government have the will and ability to make this happen? Let’s hope so.

In the short term, the federal government must ensure that the Department of Finance Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada and the CRA enact the recommendations outlined in the Senate report, with collaboration where required.

In the longer term, Canada desperately needs a strong, empowered department that is directly responsible and accountable for the broad portfolio of disability policy, including both supports and rights-based legislation. This department should engage with provinces to determine how best to streamline federal and provincial disability supports. The recently tabled Accessible Canada Act is a promising step forward for Canadians with disabilities but, given its federal remit, is not sufficient to reduce fragmentation of supports and services across Canada, many of which are delivered at a provincial level.

Finally, all parties need to realize that the current system is working against Canadians with disabilities. Denying this already disadvantaged group access to the supports that they need — and are entitled to — conflicts with our vision of an inclusive Canada.

Photo: Shutterstock/By Spiroview Inc

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Jennifer Zwicker is deputy chief scientific officer of the Kids Brain Health Network as well as assistant professor and director of the Health Policy Program at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.
Stephanie Dunn is a research associate in the Health Policy Program at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

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