Disabling Poverty, Enabling Citizenship: Recommendations for Positive Change

May 15, 2014

Principal Researcher
Michael J. Prince


Principal Researchers

Michael J. Prince, University of Victoria
Yvonne Peters, equality rights lawyer

Community Partners

Canadian Association for Community Living
Michael Bach, Cam Crawford
People First of Canada
Valerie Wolbert, Shelley Fletcher
Canada Without Poverty
Leilani Faha
Caledon Institute on Social Policy
Michael Mendelson

Academic Partners

University of Manitoba
Debra Parkes
Université du Québec à Montréal
Yves Vaillancourt, Lucie Dumais
University of Toronto
Ernie Lightman
Ryerson University
Melanie Panitch

Project Coordinators

Laurie Beachell, CCD National Coordinator
April D'Aubin, CCD Research Officer

Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)

Table of Contents


This policy reform paper comes from the work of a Community University Research Alliance project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, called "Disabling Poverty and Enabling Citizenship." Led by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, this research project, which began in 2008, will be completed at the end of 2014.

"Disabling Poverty and Enabling Citizenship" has had four themes, each with a set of research questions we have investigated over the last five years. The project has four academic partners and four community partners. Principal Researchers are Professor Michael J. Prince and Yvonne Peters. The project actively engaged students in the research and dialogue.

Theme 1
Poverty and Exclusion

Theme 1, Poverty and Exclusion, described the poverty experienced by persons with disabilities and their families. Key findings from this theme are that throughout the working years (15-64 years of age) people with disabilities remain about twice as likely as those without disabilities to live with low income. People with disabilities are much less likely than people without to have jobs. Even where employed, people with disabilities are 1.5 times more likely than people without to live with low income. As the degree of severity of disability increases, so does the risk of poverty. Age has a significant bearing on low income, with rates falling sharply among people with disabilities who are in the retirement years. 18.4% of working-age women with disabilities in low income households are lone parents compared with 9.9% of their counterparts who live above the low income measures used by Statistics Canada and 7.9% of women without disabilities. Only 4% of men with disabilities who live on low incomes are lone parents.

Theme 2
Income Security and Social Policy

Theme 2, Income Security and Social Policy, sought to build a greater understanding of the issues of income security for Canadians with disabilities, and the relation of income security to issues related to tax measures, and to disability-related supports and services. Key findings are that for working-age people with disabilities, two-thirds of their total income is from government transfers, whereas for low income people without disabilities it is market income, mainly wages or salaries from employment. The single largest component of the incomes of working-age poor people with disabilities is provincial income assistance. This trend can be described as the "welfarization of disability." Federal and provincial child and family benefits are another significant source of income for working-age people with disabilities. Private long-term disability insurance performs a modest role as a source of income for people with disabilities. Even with some targeted investments in certain public programs, changes to some tax measures, and efforts by charities and community agencies, significant gaps in supports and services, and therefore unmet needs, remain across the country for both children and working-age persons with disabilities.

Theme 3
Poverty, Disability and Equality

Theme 3, Poverty, Disability and Equality, examined equality and rights protections, in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as in human rights legislation, for persons with disabilities living in poverty. Key findings are as follows: over the last generation there have been some important advances made in legal protections for people with disabilities in Canada, including gains made regarding access. Far less progress has been made with law reform and litigation in respect to tackling poverty alleviation and in advancing economic and social rights. A few tribunals and courts have incorporated the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in their decisions. If incorporated more widely, the CRPD has the ability to create positive change. It should be used as a guide in the development of common law by resolving uncertainties, reflecting public policy, and indicating the content of customary international law which can then be drawn upon in both common law and civil law.

Theme 4
Policy Reform: Roles of State and Society

Theme 4, Policy Reform: Roles of State and Society, is informed by findings from the other three theme areas. From what we have heard from community members and learned from the research, our goal is to present reform options that will substantively improve the material living conditions and life chances of people with their disabilities and their families.

While this Community University Research Alliance project is soon completed, we intend for this paper to be used to encourage discussions beyond that timeframe to various groups and events across the country, including the 2015 federal election. Background research papers for this CURA project can found on the CCD website at: www.ccdonline.ca/en/socialpolicy/poverty-citizenship.

Principles & Commitments

The CRPD, which Canada ratified in 2010, ushers in a new vision for understanding disability, tackling poverty, and advancing full citizenship. The preamble of this convention states: Disability is an evolving concept and results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

The policy recommendations presented here are founded on the principles and commitments contained in the UN Convention, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and federal and provincial laws; and commitments to equality and dignity and to improving the standards of living as a human right. Therefore, the specific recommendations are intended to provide Canadians with disabilities and their families with the resources, means, and choices necessary to acquire and maintain economic self-sufficiency as well as to facilitate integration and participation in society on an equal basis with others.

The audiences for this paper are twofold: first, individuals, families, advocates, and groups in the disability community and related poverty community across Canada. The report will be useful in mobilizing around ideas for reform in their own provinces and at the federal level. A second audience is policy and decision-makers in provincial/territorial and federal governments. The report will assist them in better understanding issues of poverty and disability and in developing new approaches in programs and in engaging with the community.

A fundamental principle which informs our recommendations concerns the respective roles of the different levels of government. There is an important role by the federal government in the provision of income security to people with disabilities through direct transfers to individuals and families; and there is a central role by the provincial and territorial governments in ensuring the availability of affordable and appropriate services and supports for people with disabilities in their everyday lives.

Recommendations are presented for the federal government and provincial/territorial governments. As well, a series of recommendations speak to cooperation among governments in Canada.

Recommendations to the Canadian Government

Federal Recommendation #1
Establish a Refundable Disability Tax Credit

We recommend that the federal government convert the Disability Tax Credit (DTC) to a refundable disability tax credit. A refundable disability tax credit would extend compensation for the extra costs of disability to the lowest-income people with disabilities living in poverty.

  • 1.1 Make the DTC a refundable tax credit equal to the maximum current value of $2,000 per year.
  • 1.2 Everyone eligible for the DTC should get the full value of $2,000 credit regardless of their income or their employment status.

Federal Recommendation #2
Harmonize Eligibility Rules Between the DTC and CPP Disability

We recommend that every person with a disability of a year's duration who has Canada Pension Plan-Disability (CPP-D) should automatically be qualified for the Disability Tax Credit.

Federal Recommendation #3
Extend Protection of Employment Insurance Sickness Benefits

We recommend that the federal government extend the duration of the Employment Insurance (EI) sickness benefit from the current maximum duration of 15 weeks to 50 weeks, for those eligible who have a prolonged or episodic and serious illness or health condition.

Federal Recommendation #4
Expand the Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) Disability Supplement

Possible options for positive change to the WITB are:

  • 4.1 Lower the annual earnings threshold at which benefits begin to be paid, so as to better support low income wage workers.
  • 4.2 Phase-out more gradually the income level at which the maximum benefit is payable, so as to better support low income working families.
  • 4.3 Increase the value of the Disability Supplement, so as to better acknowledge the additional costs for employees living with a disability.

Federal Recommendation #5
Improve Access to the Registered Disability Savings Plan

We recommend changes to the policy design and administration of RDSP.

The impediment created by the contractual competence and legal authorization requirements for opening a Registered Disability Savings Plan has been frequently cited by individuals with intellectual disabilities and their family members as a barrier that prevents eligible beneficiaries from opening a plan. For many family members, they are caught between their desire to assure the future financial security of their relative, and the stigma, and restriction of basic rights to liberty which they know comes with formally placing their relative under a substitute decision-making or guardianship order.

  • 5.1 Consult with families and disability organizations along with other relevant stakeholders through a ministerial process such as a panel and or a parliamentary committee.

Federal Recommendation #6
Enhance the Canada Disability Child Benefit

This tax-free benefit delivers an income-tested monthly benefit to low to moderate income families with a child or children with severe and prolonged impairments in mental or physical functioning. Three potential reforms which could be done in a sequence over time are:

  • 6.1 Increase the maximum amount of the benefit and ensure that it is not clawed back under provincial social assistance schemes.
  • 6.2 Raise the current income level for which the benefit is phased-out, thus extending the benefit to more moderate-income families.
  • 6.3 Extend the coverage to those above age 18 to youth with severe and prolonged impairments. This extension could be introduced in two stages; first, to add those eligible from ages 19 to 24, and then in a subsequent budget year, include those eligible ages 25 to 30. The program could be renamed the Canada Disability Child and Youth Benefit.

Federal Recommendation #7
Better Protect Income Support for Long-Term Employees with Disabilities from Bankruptcies

We recommend that federal bankruptcy laws be revised in order to give the same priority among creditors to Long-Term Disability Plans as to normal pension contributions to company plans in the event of the insolvency of the employer.

Federal Recommendation #8
A New Basic Income for People with Severe Disabilities

Longer term, we recommend that the federal government, in close cooperation with other governments, give serious consideration to a basic income program that would replace provincial/territorial social assistance for most working-age persons with severe disabilities. The Basic Income program would be a close model of the Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) programs for seniors.

  • 8.1 The maximum benefit for an individual under the Basic Income would be the same as for eligible low-income seniors under the OAS/GIS.
  • 8.2 This federal income security initiative (along with a refundable disability tax credit) would free up funding for urgently needed disability-related supports, permitting the provinces and territories to set up more comprehensive systems of supports and services for persons with disabilities.

Federal Recommendation #9
Introduce Accessibility Legislation

We recommend specific federal legislation to promote access to federal programs, facilities, benefits, communications, and services within and under federal jurisdiction for Canadians with disabilities. This legislation would be based on principles of universal design, effective participation, and equality of opportunity.

Federal Recommendation #10
Reinstate the Court Challenges Program

We recommend that this initiative, which provided resources to disability associations (and other groups) seeking to establish or to confirm their constitutional rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, be re-established as a vehicle for promoting a fuller measure of inclusion and citizenship.

Federal Recommendation #11
UN Convention of the Rights for Persons with Disabilities

Canada has ratified the CRPD. We recommend that:

  • 11.1 Canada develop an implementation plan that makes the promise of the CRPD a reality for Canadians with disabilities.
  • 11.2 Government of Canada name and support the Canadian Human Rights Commissions as the CRPD monitoring body.
  • 11.3 Canada ratify the Optional Protocol of the Convention.

Recommendations to Provincial/Territorial Governments

Provincial/Territorial Recommendation #1
Modernizing Income Assistance Programs

Our recommendations for modernizing income assistance for people with disabilities in Canadian provinces and territories are as follows:

  • 1.1 Increasing asset limits to allow clients to maintain and accumulate some savings.
  • 1.2 Enhancing earnings exemptions thus lowering the tax-back rate on employment income and encouraging incentives to work. Earning exemptions should be "annualized" to address the particular needs of those with episodic disabilities.
  • 1.3 Raising basic rates and/or shelter components to provide more adequate and dignified standards of living.
  • 1.4 Indexing benefits automatically to the annual cost of living to ensure a degree of stability.
  • 1.5 Investing further in supports for transition to employment, including work incentives and support measures for individuals in receipt of income assistance in job training and for entering the labour force; and allowing a temporary extension of extended health-related benefits.
  • 1.6 Improving public access to information about programs in accessible formats, simplifying application procedures, and investing in appropriate training of staff to assist more effectively people with disabilities.

Provincial/Territorial Recommendation #2
Supporting Low Income Families with Children

We recommend that provincial and territorial governments introduce children and family benefits/tax credits or enhance those that exist in their jurisdiction.

  • 2.1 Child and family benefits should be annually indexed to increases in the cost of living in the province/territory.
  • 2.2 For those families where a member relies on social assistance, the family benefit should be exempt (in part or in full) from a claw-back so that social assistance is not reduced by the amount of the family benefit.
  • 2.3 A disability supplement should also be considered in the design of such child and family transfers or tax credits.

Provincial/Territorial Recommendation #3
Implementing Trust Fund Legislation

We recommend that, where such laws do not exist, provinces and territories adopt legislation for the establishment of trust funds or support trusts on behalf of persons over the age of 18 living with a permanent and significant disability and who require support services. Monies in such funds would not affect eligibility for provincial income assistance or home support services.

Provincial/Territorial Recommendation #4
Amending Labour Legislation to Protect Income Support for Long-Term Disabled Employees

We recommend that provincial labour laws be amended to require that provincially-regulated companies insure their employee Long-Term Disability Plans for protection against the risk of bankruptcy.

Provincial/Territorial Recommendation #5
Introducing Accessibility and Inclusion Legislation for Persons with Disabilities

We recommend that provinces which have not done so already introduce legislation that aims to eliminate barriers and to enhance access and inclusion for the full participation of people with disabilities in their jurisdiction.

Recommendations to All Governments in Canada

Intergovernmental Recommendation #1
Developing a Shared Statement on Accessibility, Disability, and Participation

We recommend that governments across Canada work together in developing a new statement on inclusion, accessibility, disability, and participation. Such a statement would reaffirm the central importance of supports, income and employment (as expressed in In Unison). Addressing the disproportionate poverty of Canadians with disabilities will require development of the new policy and legislation, legal protections and commitments and to the democratic co-construction of public policy (see Box 1).

  • 1.1 Any such F/P/T process would engage fully with organizations of people with disabilities in the possible development of a new framework and implementation plan.
  • 1.2 To that end, a permanent joint government-disability community advisory group should be established with a mandate and resources to ensure progress on objectives and commitments. This advisory group would also submit an annual report to all responsible ministers and, through them, to all legislatures.
  • 1.3 A basic aim would be to share and design new effective practice models with the goals of making public services and supports, including legal aid and technologies, more accessible for all citizens, and clarifying policies and programs as they relate to disability issues and human rights, including the UN Convention.

Box 1
Reform Principles and Values

  • Ensuring an adequate standard of living for individuals and families by improving coverage of social protection and enhancing adequacy and delivery of benefits
  • Promoting savings and the accumulation and retention of personal assets
  • Providing essential supports and services for everyday living
  • Facilitating employability and gainful employment in inclusive work settings
  • Enabling opportunities for the democratic co-construction of policy development
  • Advancing reasonable accommodation and equality rights

Next Steps

The policy recommendations presented herein require discussion and further definition if there is to be related action to positively impact the poverty in which so many persons with disabilities live.

Some Canadians with disabilities because of the severity or nature of their disability are unlikely to be part of the competitive labour market in the near future, thus there must be improvements to income support initiatives that lift people out of a lifetime of poverty.

For others the means of escaping poverty is having a good job and as such, supports and services must be designed in ways to enhance education, training and employment of persons with disabilities. These strategic directions must go forward together and one cannot and simply must not replace the other. Employment priority investments should be made in youth with disabilities age 18–30.

Overall, integrated policy making processes are needed that result in a coordinated set of measures which enable people with disabilities to access necessary disability-related supports, income support and employment opportunities. Integrated policy will enable Canadians to live good lives, as valued citizens and productive members of society in inclusive and accessible communities.