'Severely normal' people don't want to talk about AISH: Klein

Alberta premier raises more anger over comments about people receiving disability payments.

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein added fuel to the furor created by his remarks over the province's program for the severely disabled, saying "severely normal" people don't want to talk about it.

Klein made the comment around the same time the provincial Tory election campaign sent out a clarification of his initial statement.

Thursday afternoon at a campaign stop in Grande Prairie, a reporter tried to get Klein to clarify his earlier comments that two women "yipping" at him about their $850-a-month funding from the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) program didn't look disabled.

He didn't answer, but then addressed the issue in his speech.

"I know the CBC wants me to talk about AISH. I'm sure none of you want to talk to me about AISH, do you? No, because you're normal," Klein said. "Severely normal."

Wednesday night at a Tory rally in Calgary, Klein related a story about two AISH recipients who approached him at a sod-turning, saying AISH wasn't sufficient.

"They didn't look severely handicapped to me. I'll tell you that for sure. Both had cigarettes dangling from their mouths, and cowboy hats," Klein said.

Weeding out abusers of the system

After the rally, he said his government would weed out the "undeserving" people abusing the system.

His campaign sent out a news release, clarifying his comments.

"I know that virtually all AISH clients are people who, through no fault of their own, require assistance so that they can live their lives with dignity and comfort," he said in the statement. "I also am very aware that for many, disabilities are not always outwardly visible.

"In my earlier comments, I in no way intended to suggest that there is rampant abuse of the AISH program."

But his comment drew fire from disabled people and the opposition parties.

Robin Slater, who suffered brain damage in a car accident 20 years ago, says most people can't tell that she has a disability.

But she says she has difficulty concentrating and remembering things, and can't hold down a job, requiring her to live on $850 a month from AISH. Klein's comments about "undeserving" recipients create a climate of fear, she says.

"If he's going to cut people off AISH, I think, 'Oh my God, if I say anything, I wonder if hel'll do the same thing to me,'" Slater said.

Judy Martin, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association for the Calgary region, says it adds anxiety to people already struggling.

"I also think that's insensitive and disrespectful," Martin said.

Kevin Taft, leader of the Liberals, said Klein has lost his moral compass, while NDP leader Brian Mason said the premier was being a bully.

The government is reviewing its AISH program, because the $850-a-month rate hasn't changed in the last 10 years. In public hearings that began before the election was called, the committee heard that the program should be providing more money.

Answering questions from the media after his speech Wednesday, Klein said that some AISH recipients deserved to be paid more.