'A very dangerous situation': Advocates urge province to change AISH rules due to COVID-19

Advocates are calling for changes to rules that prevent AISH and Income Support recipients from collecting government emergency benefits.

'AISH recipients ... already receive a cash benefit from this government,' says minister

AISH recipient Sara Symington said she was already struggling financially before COVID-19 hit. (Travis McEwan/CBC )

Money was already tight for AISH recipient Sara Symington when her support stockings, nightgowns, jeans and the rest of her clothes were stolen from the laundry room two weeks ago.

Then the 43-year-old, who has multiple sclerosis and autism, took a bus to a bottle depot with a garbage bag of empties propped up on her walker — only to find out it was shut down because of the pandemic.

"COVID-19 has been tough," said Symington, an advocate with the Self Advocacy Federation, which works to help people with disabilities understand their rights and fight for them.

Symington said she also owes her grandmother $500 for her diabetic cat Izzy's emergency surgery.

"Money was already extremely tight," Symington said. "I'm claiming bankruptcy for the second time."

When COVID-19 hit, existing issues of poverty and isolation worsened for Albertans with disabilities, according to Symington and Keri McEachern, a facilitator with the Self Advocacy Federation. 

For many, food is now scarce, McEachern said.

"If you don't have friends or family who can help you out you're actually in a very dangerous situation — in danger of losing your utilities and being behind in your rent," McEachern said. 

Keri McEachern says funding rules for AISH recipients adds to their marginalization. (Submitted by Keri McEachern)

The federation is calling for a change to rules that prevent people who are receiving AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped) benefits from also accessing the Canada Emergency Response Benefit or Alberta's Emergency Isolation Support.

In the legislature Wednesday, NDP MLA Marie Renaud, the Opposition critic for Community and Social Services, raised concern that AISH and Income Support recipients who have lost work are not eligible for the same federal or provincial relief as other Canadians.

"That benefit is available to Albertans who have no other source of income," Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney responded.

"AISH recipients and Income Support recipients already receive a cash benefit from this government."

Advocates also want a reversal to the recent change in benefit payment dates.

Starting in March, monthly payments for AISH and Income Support recipients are now made on the first of the month, except when that day falls on a weekend or holiday. March payments were made on Feb. 28, meaning the time until the April 1 payment this week was 33 days.

Albertans who rely on the payments couldn't rush out to stock up on supplies until their payments arrived Wednesday, McEachern said.

"A lot of people in the community are putting themselves at risk by going store to store looking for toilet paper and groceries," she said.

They're also going without home care, housekeeping or meal supports as they struggle to access prescriptions and doctors' appointments, McEachern said.

And, she said, they have to do it on less money than before.

'Human rights issue'

Under provincial rules, AISH recipients can work part-time to supplement their $1,685 monthly payments by up to $1,072 a month without a clawback. But unlike other Canadians, AISH recipients who are no longer working because of COVID-19 are not equally entitled to the same emergency relief funds, McEachern said.

Canadians who qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit will receive $2,000 a month.

But provincial rules don't allow AISH recipients to receive additional government funding without a clawback, so $1,685 is the maximum they can receive.

"If the federal government believes that $2,000 is the minimum income that people need to live — why are people with disabilities getting substantially less than that?" asked McEachern. "They're losing $400 or $500 a month.

"This barrier is actually a human rights issue because it is discriminating against people on the basis of disability."

As of December, more than 67,700 Albertans were on AISH. Government statistics show 62,000 were on Income Support in January.


Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca