Personally Speaking: Poverty and Disability in Canada



Following the 2006 Census, Statistics Canada used the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS) to gather information about people with disabilities. Disability was defined as any long-term or recurring difficulty in activities related to hearing, seeing, communicating, mobility, agility, learning or similar activities or a condition or health problem that reduces the amount or kind of activity people can do at home, work, school or other activities such as transportation or leisure. Based on PALS, 16.5% of adults or almost 4.2 million Canadians have at least one disability.

Together, the Census and PALS provide information about people with disabilities who live on low incomes (people in households that spend after taxes 20% or more than the average on food, shelter and clothing). This is the after tax low-income cut-off (LICO) and is sometimes called the ‘poverty line’. It doesn’t include disability-related costs such as medication, services, or aids for mobility, communication or learning. In 2005 almost half a million (20.5%) working-age adults 15 to 64 years with disabilities lived on a low income. This fact sheet looks at the relationship between poverty, disability and selected other personal characteristics of Canadians.


People with disabilities of working age are about twice as likely to live on a low income as their counterparts without disabilities.

After age 65 the rate of having a low income among people with disabilities drops significantly and stays low – like the rate for seniors without disabilities – during the retirement years. This may be because government benefits help supplement incomes and reduce costs for seniors with and without disabilities.


Although women are slightly more likely than men to report disability (53.2% and 46.8%, respectively), overall there is only a slight difference in their chances of living on a low income (21.3% of women and 19.6 % of men). However, that picture changes where women are heads of single parent households. Here, more than a third (33.7%) live on low incomes.

Visible Minority and Aboriginal Status

There is a slightly lower percentage of visible minorities with a disability living on a low income compared to visible minorities who do not report disabilities (21.8% and 22.3%, respectively). These rates are a bit higher than the rate for people with disabilities who do not identify themselves as members of a visible minority or Aboriginal group (19.5%).

The rates of visible minorities with and without disabilities who live on low incomes are significantly higher than the rate for working-age people without disabilities who live on low incomes (8.4%).

Unlike the rates for visible minorities, a higher percentage of Aboriginals with disabilities live on low incomes (38.1%) than Aboriginals without disabilities (19.5%).

Type of Disability

Among those with disabilities living on a low income, 20.9% reported a physical disability (mobility, agility, or pain), 22.7% reported a sensorial or speech disability, and 27.9% reported a cognitive disability (developmental, learning, emotional/psychological, or memory).

People who have disabilities related to spoken communication or cognition are about 1.5 times more likely to have a low income than people with disabilities in general and the rates are about three times higher than those for people without a disability.

Age at Disability Onset

The age at which a person acquires a disability influences their success in the labor force; in 2006, 52.6% of those who experienced the onset of disability at an early age (before the end of formal schooling) were employed compared to 42.1% of those who experienced late onset of disability.

Age at disability onset doesn’t have a major impact on low-income status, as 22.3% of those who acquired their disability before they finished their formal schooling live on a low income compared with 19.5% of people who acquired their disabilities after finishing formal schooling.

Severity of Disability

The chances of living on a low income increase as the severity of disability increases; severity is determined by looking at types of disability, the level of difficulty experienced, and the number and type of activities that are affected.

Among people with disabilities who have low incomes 52.7% have a severe to very severe level of disability, while only 36.5% of people who have severe to very severe disabilities do not have low incomes.

This information was produced through the Council of Canadians with Disabilities’ Disabling Poverty/Enabling Citizenship project, which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's (SSHRC) Community-University Research Alliances (CURA).