Disability assistance changes not a huge step forward: advocates

'Anything recognized in gain is a step forward, in my opinion, but there’s definitely still room for expansion'

The provincial government recently announced significant changes to the Persons With Disabilities (PWD) benefit starting Sept. 1, but while more people will be able to access that assistance stream through a streamlined application process, the changes haven’t been without controversy.

For example, the funding increase that was to see British Columbians on PWD benefits receive an additional $77 per month, most of that was clawed back from many recipients, who now need to pay for bus passes they previously received as part of their benefits.

“There is certainly some controversy out there,” says Greg Hill, executive director of the Campbell River and District Association for Community Living (CRADACL). “There has been a lot of concern expressed about the disability credit that allows you to get your bus pass, for example. That was changed and has caused a lot of people some concern, because, of course, accessibility and the ability to get around, if it’s curtailed in some fashion, it really cuts into your disability pension, which is already just scraping by the poverty level.”

Tony Page, chair of the B.C. branch of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (Acorn), recently told the Georgia Straight that the cost of living in B.C. has gone up 20 per cent since 2007, when disability rates were frozen, so those benefits, in order to catch up, should be raised by around $180 per month. Instead, many are seeing an increase of as low as $11 once the bus pass concern is taken into account.

But Hill says he prefers to look at the bright side. At least things are improving. Disability pensions have been frozen for almost a decade, after all.

“In my optimistic way of looking at things, anything recognized in gain is a step forward, in my opinion, but there’s definitely still room for expansion. Considerable room,” Hill agrees.

But while he’s not happy about the funding increases falling well short of where they should be, he is pleased to see the government streamlining the process to give more people access to that funding.

“I do agree (with the government) that this process will give more people access,” Hill says. “People are shy of the process to apply for funds. When you go to the ministry to get your disability credit, there’s a stigma that surrounds the process, and people say, ‘I don’t want to be seen as disabled. I don’t want to be seen to have what society looks at with a negative connotation.’ This new process, hopefully, will alleviate that concern.”

And he knows, and has accepted, that the battle for people with disabilities will never end. It’s the nature of the beast, as it were.

“For us (CRADACL) and the other non-profits that serve the people in our society with special needs, the work is never going to be over. It’s a life-long process of lobbying and support and moving forward, and we’re quite fine with that process, but we have to recognize – and this is my own personal philosophy – that it’s never going to end, and not let things dissuade you or deter you from doing the right thing, and getting the things that need to be got, so to speak, for people with special needs,” Hill says.

And while the surface issue right now is that people with disabilities are losing their bus pass in exchange for a slightly higher monthly cheque, it’s actually a deeper problem than that, Hill says.

While the recent increases have brought disabled persons in our society, “up to the poverty level,” Hill says, making it harder for them to get around lessens away their ability to rise above that.

“If you can’t get there, you can’t work, and if you can’t work, you can’t get more money, and you’re at poverty level – which is better than it was, at least they’re not out on the street, so to speak – so it’s step, but they have to be able to get to work in order to take that next step, and this makes that more difficult.”