Strengthening Canada’s disability community in a post-pandemic world

Posted on September 16, 2020 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors: , , – Opinion/Contributors

The past six months have been among the most challenging in our history. All Canadians have seen their lives altered on a daily basis. Fortunately, our governments at every level have worked together and have responded positively and effectively to mitigate many of the worst impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we face some fundamental challenges if we are to emerge as a stronger and more compassionate society.

Over the past decade each of us was asked to carry out the first legislated reviews of Ontario’s groundbreaking Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). During the course of our work, we had the opportunity to meet with a number of extraordinary people, all living with disability. Their insights, personal stories, and ideas for a more inclusive future remained with us long after our work was done.

The pandemic has brought us back together with a new sense of purpose. COVID-19 is having a disproportionate and devastating impact on Canadians with disabilities. This crisis deserves the attention of all Canadians and urgent action is required.

The disability community is often invisible or ignored. But in fact almost 25 per cent of Canadians live with some kind of disability. According to Statistics Canada, that population is more likely to be single, female, un-or-underemployed, and living in poverty with more than one type of disability. As our population ages, that percentage will continue to go up.

Since COVID-19 hit our shores, meaningful support has been extended to various parts of our society, including the unemployed, small and medium sized business, students, renters, and the health and social services sectors. These steps have been critical and necessary. But one key population has not received the focused support it needs: our fellow citizens who live with physical, mental and developmental disabilities.

They have disproportionately borne the brunt of this disease. Yet there is no overarching or comprehensive plan to address the needs of people with disabilities as a result of COVID-19. There is no targeted plan to ensure the thousands of students with disabilities are fully and safely included when schools reopen. Many with disabilities who qualify for disability benefits did not qualify for the more generous COVID-19 benefits such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Throughout the disability community, credit card debt is up; savings, if any exist, have been depleted.

Statistics Canada released a new report in late August that surveyed some 13,000 Canadians with disabilities. The fallout from the pandemic has negatively impacted their employment, income, housing payments, basic utilities and prescription medication. Simply put, the disabled face grave economic hardship.

Even a passing glance at social media reveals the deep despair and anger of many in the disability community.

Stories of near starvation on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) are matched by increased militancy to the point of one group planning a mass, simultaneous wheelchair blockade of key downtown intersections in Toronto. On Twitter alone there are myriad examples of people going to bed hungry or forced to choose between paying the rent or buying food.

Others have flat given up on life, discussing how they are now seeking medical assistance in dying. Postings on the precise steps to get MAID are easily accessible.

This is simply unacceptable in 2020. We can and must do better. We need to fully implement the AODA by 2025 as originally promised; we need the broader public and private sectors to commit to hire more people with disabilities; and we need to bring in a national basic annual income for those with disabilities.

Over the past number of years, some key advances have been made in Canada to enhance the lives of those with disabilities but it is critical to accelerate the pace of change. Ontario’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) was passed unanimously in 2005 to support social inclusion. To date, Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia as well as the federal government are implementing accessibility standards for the broader public sector (e.g., provincial and municipal governments, educational and health facilities), the private sector and the non-profit sector.

When the AODA was passed there was great hope among the disability community that significant steps forward would be made within a short period of time. But the pace of change has been far too slow.

Key recommendations from the three legislated reviews carried out over the past decade have either been ignored or only partially implemented by both Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments. We asked the Ontario government to show stronger leadership on accessibility, to strengthen existing accessibility standards, to substantially increase enforcement of the AODA, and to create strong new accessibility standards in priority areas like the built environment, education and health.

A clear updated plan is now required to get Ontario back on track to ensure the province is accessible for people with disabilities by 2025.

Second, while there have been some advances by the broader public and private sectors over the past decade to hire more Canadians with disabilities, much more can and needs to be done. Numerous reports underline the positive economic impact that employing persons with disabilities can have not only for the individuals themselves but also for the companies and institutions that hire them. We need all governments (federal, provincial and local) to set out meaningful and measurable hiring objectives.

The national and provincial Chambers of Commerce should equally call upon all their members to set out clear plans to increase the number of disabled persons in their organizations. We need initiatives from the private sector to promote and increase the hiring of disabled Canadians, similar to what Bell Canada has done to raise awareness around mental health issues.

Third, while the AODA has been critical to help level the playing field in Ontario for those with disabilities, it was not intended to resolve the persistent financial disadvantages faced by this community. The glaring hole in Canada’s treatment of its disabled population is the paucity of meaningful and appropriate financial support. Across all sectors, we need to raise our game by improving financial supports, focusing on hiring persons with disabilities, and ensuring timely and effective service provision.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has informed the country that our federal government will present a Throne Speech on Sept. 23. He underlined that the COVID-19 pandemic now required the government to set out new directions for the country to restore the economy and deal with the broad impacts that the virus has left in its wake.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has said we need to “build back better.” Better must include strong financial supports for the most disadvantaged in our society through a national basic income program for Canadians with disabilities.

Our suggested approach is that the federal government implement, after consultation with representatives from the disability community, a national basic income program for those with disabilities that would provide an income floor under which no one could fall. As a starting point, the eligibility criteria could follow that currently used for the federal disability tax credit.

Income supports as we know them today are meagre at best and Dickensian at worse. Single adults receiving support through ODSP can receive up to $1,169 per month. In Toronto, the average market rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,374. A single person receiving ODSP starts the month $205 behind.

In the 1960s, Canada introduced the Canada Pension Plan and medicare. These initiatives lifted thousands out of poverty and ensured that all Canadians regardless of socio-economic standing could access quality health care. In the 1970s, Ontario introduced the Guaranteed Annual Income Supplement in response to a 35 per cent poverty rate for seniors. The more recent Canada Child Benefit has protected thousands of children from poverty.

Indeed, the CERB is only the most recent example of governments of all political stripes acting to provide income support when people need it. We believe the implementation of a national basic income regime for those with disabilities will have a similar and immediate impact on the lives of the disabled.

COVID-19 has had a seismic impact on our society, comparable to that of the Second World War and the population explosion of the 1960s. Following those historic events, Canada responded with ambitious and innovative social legislation designed to meet the needs of a changing world. Those innovations gave birth to the broad social, health and education supports that Canadians enjoy today. The current crisis demands similarly bold solutions.

Let us fully implement the AODA. Let us set out clear goals to hire more people with disabilities. Let us implement a national basic income regime for those with disabilities. These steps will rival CPP, Medicare, the CERB, and other innovations with immediate impact on the lives of millions of people. Just as previous generations built these important programs, let us dedicate ourselves to “building back better” by improving the lives of one of our most vulnerable populations. The time to act is now.

David Onley is the former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Mayo Moran is the provost and vice chancellor of Trinity College and University of Toronto and Charles Beer, former Minister of Community and Social Services.

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