Open Letter to Minister Moira Stilwell

Date: January 12, 2013

To: The Honourable Dr. Moira Stilwell MD, MLA, B.C. Minister of Social Development;

Re: Provincial Disability Benefits

Dr. Stilwell, as representatives of ACORN Canada’s Disability Rights Group, we thank you for meeting with us to discuss the current model of social assistance in British Columbia as it pertains to those with disabilities. As persons with disabilities and as members of ACORN, an organization with over 9,000 members in BC of which roughly 3,000 receive disability benefits, we can assert that the system is failing those who depend on it. We do not meet with you today on bended knee to beg for scraps, or as adversaries seeking confrontation. We meet with you as citizens, voters, and above all, as humans. Human beings that desire nothing more than that their humanity be recognized through a system of support that secures their personal dignity and physical wellbeing.

People do not choose to become disabled, and as a medical doctor we know you are more aware than most of the added mental and physical duress which comes from inadequate housing, food, and basic necessities. We meet with you today so that we can begin to work together, as equals, to improve the existing the system of disability benefits.

While there are many deficiencies with the current system, the most immediate changes which need to occur are:

1 Increase the disability rate from $906.42 to $1,200 per month in the next budget. This is consistent with the demands of organizations like “Raise the Rates” and the “Disability Without Poverty Network”. Also, the disability rate and associated benefits need to be indexed to keep pace with inflation.

2 Provide easier access to disability benefits. Reduce the “red tape” required for a disabled person to qualify and provide referrals to independent advocates to help those that need assistance. Allow for a temporary qualification and benefits while the claim is being processed. Make it easier for those requiring special diets and those requiring special prescriptions to access the benefits necessary to alleviate their condition.

The following is a list of other pertinent issues that our Disability Rights Group has compiled during the course of our work with the thousands of British Columbians who currently receive disability benefits.

3 Reinstate the CVS. When the Community Volunteer Supplement of $100/mo. was discontinued a letter was sent to all people on the wait list (about 8,000 people) promising the supplement to those who were on the wait list by August 8, 2011 and had applied for the program by October 31, 2011. The letter also advised that the wait list would be discontinued, and the program itself would not be available for anyone to apply for after August 8, 2011. The letter did, however, promise to introduce an improved program in its place. It has now been nearly 1 ½ years since that promise was made. Why wasn’t the existing program continued for new applicants while the new one was being developed? When will this replacement program be implemented and what will it look like?

4 Improve travel benefits. Currently a person on PWD can buy a bus pass or receive a travel allowance, but not both. Recipients of PWD benefits should be able to obtain both. The individual may not always be able to use public transit. Additionally, due to the difficulty those PWD recipients face meeting their day to day financial challenges on a woefully inadequate allowance, the bus passes should be distributed at no charge to PWD recipients.

5 Provide additional shelter assistance for people on disability benefits and who are living in housing at market rates in something like that provided for eligible seniors through the SAFER program. This is another demand put forward by the Disability without Poverty Network in their report entitled: overdue The Case for Increasing the Persons with Disabilities Benefit in BC, that was released in July 2012, that individuals living in market housing may obtain a rent subsidy of up to $385 in the Lower Mainland, and $300 elsewhere.

6 Provide fair coverage for couples. Make the disability rate independent of marriage, by law, or by common law.

Currently, a disabled person with PWD status is eligible for an income of $906/mo. So, the combined income of two roommates on the PWD allowance is $1,812 = $906 x 2. However, if they are legally married or living in a common law relationship, under the present system, they will only receive $1,519. This is a $293 penalty.

Additionally, if one partner is not on PWD and is working, they are only allowed to make $800 before the 100% claw back begins on their partner’s disability allowance. With the high cost of day-care and other work-related expenses this can be prohibitive against work. Ending the claw back would end this problem.

Also, eliminate the penalty to disabled individuals who are deemed eligible for assistance based on their disability, but, do not qualify due to the fact that their spouse makes “too much” money. This is humiliating as it turns the disabled person into a beggar from his/her spouse. The current rules are extremely prejudicial against disabled persons involved in or considering involvement in a marriage or cohabitation of any kind. Disabled people who are in a relationship should not have to pretend to be roommates in order to get full coverage!

7 End the claw back. The tax system is the only fair way to deal with extra earned income. The disability benefit should be taken into account by the employer and the appropriate tax deducted at source. This deduction should be on the conservative side so that the individual concerned will normally expect a refund.

8 Provide training and jobs. The government needs to fund education for PWD recipients, and provide legislation and incentives for employers to hire disabled people. The government should set a positive example through the utilization of a quota (eg. 10%) for the hiring of disabled employees. Preference should be given to qualified candidates who are currently on PWD. Support during the transition to employment should be available as well as funding for special equipment. This will help these candidates to overcome barriers to employment such as gaps in employment history, lack of confidence in interviews due to various reasons, and other barriers.

9 Improve access to buildings for wheelchairs. People that must use a scooter or wheelchair face many daily challenges, not the least of which is accessing public buildings and businesses. The government needs to create effective legislation and incentives for businesses to ensure that their buildings are accessible. Additionally, the government should ensure that all government buildings are accessible.

10 Affordable quality daycare. There is a great need for affordable daycare so that parents of young families are able to work. A $10/day daycare system, with free service for those living in poverty would be a good beginning. Additionally, qualified early child educators should be involved in setting quality standards of practice for these centers and their employees.

11 Independent Advocates. Many people with disabilities struggle to find the benefits to which they are entitled. They can be overwhelmed by the reams of paperwork that they must go through and forms that they must fill in and submit in order to access benefits. There is a need for independent advocates to help people who are unable to work part-time or full-time due to long-term illness and/or disability. Funding should be available by contract to community service agencies that will provide advocacy services.

12 Improved Complaint Mechanism. The Ministry of Health has an excellent system to deal with complaints and suggestions. The system ensures that all complaints are dealt with in a timely, professional and thorough manner. The system has many excellent features and may provide a model for the development of a complaint mechanism within the Ministry of Social Development (MSD).

13 Staff training for courtesy. Unfortunately, the examples of MSD staff treating clients rudely and without respect are legion, and they continue to accumulate. MSD staff need to have a consistent standard of practice when dealing with the public that is respectful and that constantly recognizes the dignity and worth of every human being. Basic methods should include providing numbered tickets to eliminate line-ups, and adequate seating and washroom access. We need to move away from the adversarial model towards a more understanding and helpful approach. This will improve staff morale as well.

14 Information availability. MSD needs to provide a full information package of benefits for new applicants. They also need to provide a notice of any changes with the monthly cheque, or deposit stub. Printed materials are best, since not everyone can access computers or the internet.

Tom Page, Chair, Disability Rights Group

Gloria Yogyog, ACORN Member

Noel Ouelette, ACORN Member

Désiré Wells, ACORN Member