I approached BC’s February budget full of hope. It was the first full budget by an NDP government in 17 years and had been hyped as a spending budget. As a disabled woman and disability advocate, I was encouraged to see an image including someone in a wheelchair on the cover of the budget document.
Unfortunately, for the moment, that hope is on hold.
The words “disabilities” and “disability” only appear a handful of times in a first search of the 157-page document, mostly referring to the $52/month transportation supplement announced last fall. I started to be concerned upon realizing there were no new proposals in the budget to cover the unique needs of disabled people. Considering that disability is the only identity group that most people will eventually join, the profile of disability issues in the budget continues to be worryingly thin.
To be fair, there are major social investments in this budget that will benefit disabled people. We do not exist in isolation: There are parents who are disabled and need child care and many disabled people struggle to find adequate housing. All of the proposals aimed to improve access to housing and child care will improve the lives of disabled people too.
However, a disability lens needs to be applied to these investments. For example, the budget includes investments “in safe and secure housing for those most in need” and details funding directed towards homelessness, women and children fleeing abusive relationships and housing for Indigenous peoples. Disabled people intersect with all of these categories and if the new affordable housing is not built with accessibility in mind, then they will be frozen out of these new initiatives. An example that ensures accessibility is included is the Right Fit Pilot Project, which is “a multi-partner effort to address challenges in matching affordable, wheelchair-accessible homes and independent living support services in Metro Vancouver with people who need them”.
Disability is the only identity group that most people will eventually join.
Disabled British Columbians often live in poverty, either unable to find suitable employment or unable to work due to the severity of their disabilities and therefore live on the provincial disability allowance (the Person With a Disability category within social assistance). After a 10-year freeze on rates by the previous government and a modest pre-election raise, the September 2017 mini-budget raised the disability allowance by $100 to $1,133 a month. This allowance still isn’t indexed to inflation, in contrast to the federal CPP-D payment, so its value is eroded each year a raise is not applied.
Poverty reduction is a major priority for this government and it is developing a comprehensive poverty reduction plan in consultation with communities around the province. One hopes this plan will include additional supports for people with disabilities, especially those who rely on the disability allowance to survive. In the interim, however, these most vulnerable people are asked to wait.
Newly announced measures to reduce the costs of prescription drugs for the lowest-income British Columbians will help disabled people who are often forced to choose between paying for food and lodging and getting prescription medications. To further improve the healthcare of all disabled British Columbians, the government must more quickly add the newest treatments to Fair Pharmacare. One recent example is the Multiple Sclerosis medication, Lemtrada, which took four years to be added, meaning BC is one of the last provinces to make this drug available to those without private insurance plans.
In addition to income, people with disabilities need access to care. This budget addresses care in two ways: through a revamped BC caregiver credit and new investments in seniors care. The BC caregivers credit replaces two previous tax credits to streamline the system and brings it in line with a similar federal credit. The new credit provides a tax reduction of up to $230.53 per year. In sharp contrast to the disability allowance, it is linked to inflation. Unfortunately, it is non-refundable and doesn’t help those with the lowest levels of income, particularly someone who has given up work to care for a person with a disability and has no income so owes no tax.
People with disabilities living in long-term care facilities find themselves in institutions where the average age of residents is 85.
A disability lens must be applied to the situation of those who require care at home or in long-term care facilities as this is primarily seen as a seniors’ issue. Disabled people under the age of 65 also require care and their needs are both similar to and different from those of seniors. Their care tends to be delivered in different ways with a higher proportion of disabled people receiving care at home than in long-term care facilities such as through the Choices in Supports for Independent Living program. People with disabilities living in long-term care facilities find themselves in institutions that are not set up for their needs as the average age of residents is 85.
Making improvements to care is a multifaceted undertaking and while they may seem beyond the scope of a budget discussion, budgets must lay the groundwork by providing funding for care reform and investing in a care workforce strategy. For example, investment in training for additional care assistants is desperately needed just as the budget invests in training for new early childhood educators. Much of the new $548 million for seniors care is expected to increase direct care hours in long-term care facilities to meet provincial guidelines. This is a worthy goal, but increased hiring in residential care facilities would come from an already stretched labour pool and would further reduce the number of available caregivers to support people with disabilities in their own homes. There is much work to be done.
While including a person in a wheelchair on the budget document cover represents people with disabilities as British Columbians, it would be even better if the budget measures inside the covers actually reflected the realities of the lives of people with disabilities.