Budgets are tight for people like Christine Bonnett who live with a disability in Manitoba. The 44-year-old lives with multiple auto-immune diseases and depends on the Canada Pension Plan's long-term disability benefit to make ends meet.

"I'm not afraid to say that I make less than $10,000 a year on CPP disability," she said.

$10,000 is a fraction of what Bonnett once made as a full-time office worker in a local payroll department. When neuromyelitis optica took her sight she was no longer able to work in that position. The effects of lupus and myasthenia gravis — two other auto-immune diseases — create even more challenges.

In addition to being blind, Bonnett uses a wheelchair to get around and suffers from joint and muscle pain.

As she went through the diagnoses, Bonnett spent a lot of time in hospital. Bills piled up.

"I was in the hospital for nine months and at one point they were turning to my husband and saying, 'Does Christine have a living will?' You know, you go through things like that and suddenly money doesn't really matter at that point in time, so you throw it on credit card and you deal with it later."

Acquiring a visual and physical disability also meant changes to the family home. Installing a ramp and retrofitting her bathroom cost thousands of dollars, a cost that was offset by the generosity of her extended family. Medical aids and assistive devices are expensive, with the price of a specialty wheelchair pillow hovering around $300.

Some expenses can be claimed back in income taxes, but others, such as Bonnett's $400 monthly prescription drug bill, cannot.

Poverty levels for people living with a disability are roughly twice as high as those who do not have a disability in this country, and they're complex. Factors such as age, type of disability and private insurance coverage at work mean that one person's experience can vary greatly compared to another's.

"If two neighbours acquired the same disability they might have very different experiences depending on where they worked, where they acquired their disability," said Michael Prince, a professor of social policy at the University of Victoria.

"One family may end up on social assistance, the other family has to tighten their belts a bit and handle it not too badly," said Prince. "That also adds to people's anger sometimes or frustration and puzzlement — it seems to be unfair that people might acquire similar kinds of conditions and the Smith family down the street seems to do OK, but the Joneses across the road are struggling mightily and might even have to sell the house."

More Canadians with disabilities live alone

Social surveys show that more Canadians with disabilities live alone than those without disabilities.

"We don't fully understand what's all behind that, whether some of that is the breakdown of a relationship, or partners divorcing or leaving a relationship where someone acquires a debilitating condition. ... Certainly struggling with some of these kinds of conditions puts strains on relationships."

"You feel like a burden. You honestly do if you can't give back." - Christine Bonnett

Bonnett married the love of her life in 1992, a year after she was diagnosed with lupus. At the time the couple knew that her condition could worsen, and today she depends on her husband more than she would like.

"Everybody says that they feel like a burden," said Bonnett, "and people go, 'Oh don't feel that way.' But you know what? That's how they feel in the moment — if not to their spouses, [then to] their family or friends, to the province, to the federal government. You feel like a burden. You honestly do if you can't give back."

The time and experience she once used in payroll, Bonnett now puts toward fundraising events in the community. Bonnett is known for her advocacy and volunteer work with organizations in Winnipeg, such as CNIB, Rotary Club, and United Way.


Access Denied is a CBC Manitoba series exploring accessibility for people with disabilities in Winnipeg. If you have a story you want to share, email kim.kaschor@cbc.ca.

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