Sunday, December 3 is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The day, which the United Nations has been observing since 1992, is meant to remind policy-makers and the general public that disabled people exist, have rights, and deserve explicit action to ensure dignity and full participation in public life.
How does Canada stack up to these goals? The data shows that we still have a long way to go.
People with disabilities have always faced higher rates of poverty, and that continues to be the case today—despite recent gains in the labour market. The employment gap between people with disabilities and those without (aged 25 to 64) is more than 20 percentage points—and is even larger for those with moderate to very severe disabilities.
Lack of government support compounds earnings disparities. For people forced to live on social assistance, low benefits lock disabled people into lives of poverty. In every province and territory, disability benefits are not even close to bringing recipients over the low income threshold.
With the end of pandemic-era programs, rates of poverty are on the rise again. In 2021, 16.5 per cent of people with disabilities—that’s over 1.5 million people—lived in poverty. That’s roughly twice the rate as those without disabilities, which sits at 8.6 per cent.
The rate is especially high among women—17.6 per cent of whom lived in poverty. It is also elevated for seniors, at 19.3 per cent, and skyrockets for disabled people living on their own—where a whopping 37.6 per cent of people lived in poverty in 2021.
Too many people with disabilities fall through the holes in Canada’s social safety net, at all levels. Governments need to step up with programs that can meet the immediate needs of millions in the face of surging rents and the high cost of basics.
For people with disabilities, this includes essential medications and service supports necessary for daily life. Community support programs still haven’t recovered from the disruptions occasioned by the pandemic. People with disabilities have been caught up in the fall out; almost half of reported difficulties in meeting their financial obligations as a result of the pandemic.
We know that governments are capable of rapidly implementing effective programs as we saw during the spring of 2020. Programs like the CERB now offer important lessons for how to strengthen income security permanently, expanding coverage to precarious workers—as so many people with disabilities are—and creating a higher minimum income floor for all.
Negotiations are underway right now on a new Canada Disability Benefit—an initiative that has taken years to get off the ground. Framework legislation finally passed in June 2023 but it remains to be seen what form the new benefit will take.
Will the Canada Disability Benefit extend support to all people with disabilities in need? Will it make a significant dent in the unacceptably high levels of poverty? Will access to critical community services be protected?
What’s needed now on this International Day of Persons with Disabilities is a heightened sense of urgency to move promises into transformative action. That includes introducing a Canada Disability Benefit that lifts people out of poverty and provides the foundation for people to thrive.