'We can use every cent': Disability community seeks end to program changes

People with disabilities who rely on financial support from a number of programs are sending urgent pleas to provincial officials to abandon changes to government assistance.

Government has paused changes to the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability program

People at a news conference Thursday holding copies of letters from the government, sent in August, informing them about changes to provincial social services income supports for people with disabilities. (CBC)

People with disabilities who rely on financial support from a number of programs are sending urgent pleas to provincial officials to abandon changes to government assistance.

"[W]e can use every cent that we get," one person wrote in a letter sent to officials in the Ministry of Social Services. "And it's not like you guys can't afford to give us a little extra as we are disabled, mentally or physically."

It's a very scary future for many people.- Judy Hannah

The letter, and others, were shared Thursday by a coalition of advocates and people with disabilities who identified issues with a government plan to change how financial supports are calculated.

According to the Saskatchewan Disability Income Support Coalition, which is made up of 43 different groups, the proposed changes will reduce financial aid for an estimated 2,700 people.

Judy Hannah is a spokeswoman for DISC, the Saskatchewan Disability Income Support Coalition, which has 43 different agencies advocating for people with disabilities. (CBC)

Judy Hannah, a spokeswoman for the coalition, explained how a government move to recalculate benefits could result in an average $1,300 worth of support dropping by $150.

The province notified aid recipients about the changes in August. Following a backlash, the minister at the time said they would pause the implementation of the changes. 

Hannah said the changes should be abandoned altogether, in part because people are stressed out wondering if they will be affected.

"The uncertainty is really hurting people," Hannah said Thursday. "It's hurting their health, their well-being."

Ian Morrison says financial support from SAID, the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability program, has made a tremendous difference in his life. (CBC News)

Ian Morrison said the current program has given him positive feelings of self-worth because it recognizes he has a disability. Now, he is worried about his future.

"It feels like the rug's been pulled out from under you," he said. "And you're going to hit the floor hard."

When the ministry sent notices to aid recipients telling them about the program changes, many were caught by surprise.

"I panicked," Tiffany Friesen said, explaining her reaction to the government letter. She said she immediately contacted different agencies to learn more, but got nowhere. "Nobody really knew what was taking place."

Friesen said she reacted quickly to the change — a cut of roughly $150 per month — and made arrangements to move.

Tiffany Friesen said Thursday it is too late for her to undo a move she made to cope with a reduction in a financial support program for people with disabilities. (CBC)

"It was entirely out of fear," she said. Friesen added that she only recently learned that implementation of the changes had been paused. Since she already made commitments to a new landlord, Friesen said she can't undo her move and will see a drop in her monthly support.

"I ended up selling my furnishings and household possessions as well," she said. She also had to find new homes for her pets because she couldn't afford to take them with her. "My life was not only physically changed … it was such an upheaval, emotionally [and] mentally, it was exhausting."

While she can't change her situation, Friesen said she is speaking out so others don't experience the same thing.

"Nobody should have to go through what I had to," she said.

Morrison said he has learned that he is among those for whom the changes were paused, but he is dreading what lies ahead if the changes are implemented.

"I feel it was disrespectful … to take away the life we've built," Morrison said. "I understand money is short and all that, but people living with disabilities aren't going to go anywhere."

Hannah said people living with a disability face enough challenges as it is and changing the financial support is hurtful.

"Allow these people to return to live in dignity," she said. "It's a very scary future for many people."

Social Services minister is 'listening'

The current minister, Tina Beaudry-Mellor, said Thursday that the changes were still paused.

"I am listening carefully to what the disability community is saying," she said. "I'm definitely listening."

She noted that financial assistance programs need to be sustainable but did not elaborate on what the ministry is examining to ensure long-term sustainability of such aid.

"We have some work to do, to consult," she said.

Another letter to the ministry, shared by the coalition on Thursday, noted that there is already financial stress despite aid from the affected program, the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability [SAID].

"Personally, I am only scraping by," the letter-writer said. "If the money is taken from our SAID income, we will go from poverty to far below poverty."