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COVID-19 exposes cracks in Canadian disability aid

'Do our lives count for less?'

Karyn Keith says she isn't asking for much. All she wants is the same support she'd receive if she was out of a job because of the pandemic, rather than unable to work because of her disabilities.

The 44-year-old mother in Brampton, Ont., said she lives with constant pain and fatigue from multiple chronic conditions, including trigeminal neuralgia, a debilitating nerve disorder characterized by searing spasms through the face.

She was forced to leave her career in supply chain and logistics management in 2013 when her health deteriorated after the birth of her daughter. Since then, she's received $1,150, plus $250 for her child, every month in federal disability benefits based on her contributions to the Canada Pension Plan.

Even with her husband's income as a mechanic, Keith said most of her family's spending is geared towards "survival."

Still, some essentials fall through the cracks.

There's a molding hole in her ceiling that's needed repair since 2014. Her husband's teeth are breaking because they can't afford to fill his cavities. Every month, they have to dip into their dwindling savings to pay the bills.

Now, with the added financial strains of COVID-19, Keith says she's doesn't know what else they can live without. "We're on the precipice, and literally, it's going to take one thing to kick us off the edge."

Keith says these shortcomings have become starker as the federal government doles out $2,000 a month to millions of out-of-work Canadians under the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, while she's supposed to make ends meet on a little more than half that amount.

"If people who work need this money to survive on, what about people who can't?" Keith said. "Don't we deserve a standard of living?"

Many advocates point to CERB as a concession that Canada's disability assistance rates have failed to keep up with the costs of living in much of the country, and in some places, fallen below the poverty line.

But for a number of Canadians on disability assistance, CERB has also come to symbolize the extent to which their lives are devalued, even during a pandemic that puts them at disproportionate physical and financial risk.

"For some, it's just reinforced the profound sense of cynicism of how they've been treated for much of their life by the government," said Michael Prince, a professor of social policy at University of Victoria.

Prince said COVID-19 presents a case study in the pitfalls of Canada's motley patchwork of disability income programs, and a model for how a unified nation-wide support system like CERB could fill these holes in the social safety net.

Shortly after the pandemic hit, Ottawa rolled out the $82-million emergency benefits package to offer workers who lost their jobs $500 a week.

The government's latest figures show $62.75 billion in benefits have been paid to 8.46 million people. Last Friday, federal officials announced that CERB will wind down in coming weeks as the government shifts many people over to a revamped employment insurance system.

Prince said the speed and simplicity of CERB marked a bitter contrast for many disability assistance recipients who must navigate a Byzantine set of eligibility requirements and rate calculations before their benefits kick in.

In late July, Parliament approved a one-time $600 payment for people with disabilities facing additional expenses during COVID-19, including the increased costs of food, medication, support workers and personal protective equipment.

Prince commended the government for including an estimated 1.7 million Canadians across a range of disability support programs, and giving people 60 days to apply for the disability tax credit, which would qualify them for the one-time payment.

Unlike CERB, the payment is tax-free and non-reportable, Prince noted, so it won't be subject to clawbacks or offsets at the provincial level.

Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough said in a statement that the government remains committed to a "disability inclusive" pandemic response.



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