British Columbia

Amid federal election promises and perks, more than 6 million voters with disabilities feel ignored

People with disabilities are frustrated that, despite making up 20 per cent of the Canadian population, there has been scant commitment from federal leaders to address their needs during the election campaign.

Advocates cite poverty, lack of a living wage and jobs as priorities for voters with disabilities

Michelle Hewitt is the co-chair of the organization Disability Without Poverty. The former public school math and music teacher and principal was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in her early 40s. Her dog's name is Deefer. (Joseph Otoo/CBC News)

Michelle Hewitt can't contain her frustration.

The co-chair of Disability Without Poverty, a national movement dedicated to securing a federal disability benefit for low-income Canadians with disabilities, is discouraged that important issues have been ignored during the federal election campaign.

That's despite the fact that the disability community represents more than 20 per cent of the Canadian population — more than six million potential voters.

Financial inequality is at the top of their list of concerns.

"Ten per cent of all Canadians live in poverty," Hewitt said. "And of those 10 per cent, four of them are disabled. It's been frustrating to see that CERB payments were set at $2,000 as a living wage, while welfare payments to disabled Canadians were well below that — $700 less in B.C. alone."

"We're fed up," Hewitt continued.

Bill for disability benefit shelved

Disability Without Poverty has analyzed the major parties' platforms for how they would support Canadians living with disabilities.

There was a glimmer of hope in June, when the government tabled Bill C-35 that set out the framework for the creation of a monthly Canada Disability Benefit for low-income people with disabilities. But then Parliament was dissolved for summer, and the election was called. It left the community discouraged and unsure of what would happen next. 

"I think all of us are sitting here with our heads in our hands with great worry for what's going to happen," Hewitt said. "People who live in poverty cannot wait any longer." 

Neil Belanger agrees that poverty is at the root of all of the issues that confront people with disabilities. He's executive director of B.C. Aboriginal Network on Disability Society. And for his community, issues like employment equity are compounded by systemic racism.

"Each of the parties talk about the importance of employment, but they don't talk about what's necessary for persons living with a disability," Belanger said.

"We already know that there is systemic anti-Indigenous racism. We already know there's discrimination against persons with disabilities. So it's a huge barrier for the individuals that we serve to actually get a job." 

Neil Belanger is the executive director of B.C. Aboriginal Network on Disability Society. (Submitted by Neil Belanger)

Belanger noted that change has been a long time coming.

"Persons with disabilities should be running in every election, and in leadership roles within government," Belanger said. 

"Who better than them to talk about accessibility? Who better than them to talk about what it's like to live in poverty? And who better than them to talk about their experiences of racial discrimination and discrimination based on disability? No one." 

Wildfires, heat waves

The lack of a living wage can also impact Canadians in emergency situations.

Jewelles Smith is coordinator of communications and government relations with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. The organization is challenging the incoming government to ensure that people with disabilities are not forgotten during the planning processes for future emergencies or left out when disasters occur. 

"I think it's important to think about when we talk about climate response and emergency preparedness is the fact that many people with disabilities don't have the extra income to purchase fans and air conditioners at a moment's notice like we saw happen in the summer," Smith said. 

Jewelles Smith and her service dog DaVinci. She is the communications and government relations coordinator with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. (Submitted by Jewelles Smith)

There's also a significant gap when it comes to accessible information.

"This past summer, when we had the emergency evacuations related to the wildfires in the West, I was hearing that information wasn't being shared with people with disabilities in an accessible manner, including no ASL or SQL interpreters," Smith continued. 

'Do better'

She added that people didn't always know how to access things that they might need, including accessible transportation, or where to access medications, plug-in equipment or oxygen, or how to take care of their service animals. 

Although all of the major parties did reference disability in their platforms, Smith noted that words aren't enough.

"We need to do better in so many areas," Smith said. "There's not a single election issue that doesn't directly affect the lives of people with disabilities."

Listen to Cathy Browne talk with CBC's Stephen Quinn on The Early Edition about how the federal campaign is addressing the needs of people with disabilities:


Cathy Browne


Cathy is a photographer and visual artist currently working on CBC's Vancouver morning radio show, The Early Edition.