Reforming and Regulating Disability Welfare in Canada

Reforming and Regulating Disability Welfare in Canada


Victoria De Capua Campbell


Disability, both as a policy consideration and a societal challenge, has evolved over time from a public safety concern to an issue of social responsibility and social values. In spite of the increasing awareness and acceptance of individuals who experience great social and financial disadvantage because of physical or mental disability, there are still tremendous gaps and oversights in the way that Canadian governments address those disadvantages.

In order to have a real impact on the lives of people with disabilities and encourage society to treat them with respect and empathy, Canadian policies must do more to support, enfranchise and advance those people with respect to what abilities and skills they themselves may contribute to society.

This paper will focus primarily on those who are not gravely disabled, which is to say that they are not completely dependent in every way on the care of others, but rather those whose disabilities don’t preclude them from acquiring skills or education. It will also address the needs of disabled persons who do not fall under the often required statutes of financial need, but who clearly demonstrate a serious impairment in their day to day lives.

In her article, Disability Policy in Canada, Lyn Jongbloed identifies the primary challenge when approaching disability policy by criticizing the lack of a cohesive paradigm. To wit,

 Each model uses a different normative base to answer the question of what society owes  persons with disabilities. Because the models and their normative bases are not conceptually  linked, no one model can be used as the basis for disability policy development (…)The medical model focuses on medical needs and suggests the normative principles of charity and accommodation. It does not raise questions of justice, nor does it emphasize the rights of  people with disabilities. The economic model stresses participation in the form of economic       integration and the principle of welfare maximization. The thrust of the sociopolitical model is  the attainment of rights and equality, and here disability becomes part of the moral and political sphere, where issues of justice and entitlement have to be addressed.[i]

While the Canada Pension Plan requires an individual to prove they are unemployable in order to receive disability assistance[ii], provincial governments have begun to prioritize or at least encourage persons accepting disability benefits to re-enter the work force. British Columbia and Ontario both have disability benefit policies that presuppose that a person with disability will supplement their provincial cash assistance with at least part time employment. In BC’s 2011 report Improving Services to People with Developmental Disabilities, the Deputy Minister’s recommendations are indeed, on the page, ideologically progressive and seem to suggest sound policy:

Inclusion – supports and services that emphasize relationships, community presence, and participation in valued roles such as employee, friend and neighbour;

Employment – to enhance community inclusion and promote better quality of life outcomes while increasing personal and financial independence;

Innovation – intensifying the focus on incubating and promoting innovative ideas; and

Outcome-focused metrics – to ensure access to supports and services is fair and aligned with the  current needs of individuals, while ensuring efficient use of public funding.[iii]

The Ontario Disability Support Program Act of 1997 (which is the most recent legislation posted to their government website) has a more simplistic list of goals, but also underscores the expectation of employment:

-provide income and employment supports to eligible persons with disabilities;

-recognize that government, communities, families and individuals share responsibility for providing such supports;

-effectively serve people with disabilities who need assistance; and

-be accountable to the taxpayers of Ontario.[iv]

Jongbloed, however, identifies a flaw in the way that these provincial programs are executed that suggest that they are incapable of living up to their own mandates, pointing out that “benefits are lower than can be earned in the workforce, to provide an incentive for people to seek and retain employment; however, benefits are so low that many recipients live in poverty. The current disability system does not acknowledge that all people with disabilities need adequate income support regardless of the cause of their disability. “[v]

Jongbloed also points out that a person injured in a motor vehicle accident in British Columbia will receive treble the amount of benefits and financial aid as a person with a permanent disability, who must then pursue benefits through provincial welfare, which puts the burden of means-testing on that individual [vi]and requires them to be essentially without cash resources in order to qualify for income assistance,  which is a pre-requisite for British Columbia’s Persons With Disability designation.

While it might be practical on an administrative level to make poverty a function of disability and fold resources into a single needs-based service, it seems in contradiction to the goal of creating less financial dependence on the province. Additionally, by linking it with poverty, such policy discounts disability as a challenge in and of itself, which adds another layer of stigma to what is already a practical and social challenge.

Roselind Robertson, a policy analyst who has a physical disability, points out the hypocrisy of this attitude in an interview:

The biggest issue for the disabled is fitting the “needy” appearance and manner that society     expects you to have. To get any support – be it employment or assistance – you’ve got to look   badly off. There was a Toronto Star article where a reporter chased around expensive vehicles with disabled parking stickers and accused their owners of taking advantage of the system – because disabled people shouldn’t have nice things. The Star – which goes on at length about social justice – couldn’t even see its own bias, or conceive that you can be disabled AND have a BMW.[vii]

She continues to underscore the illogic of the seeming effort to force persons with disability to conform to an image of victimhood:

 We put an enormous amount of money into programs for the disabled – but you’ve got to be    over 65 to get it. And that’s a problem. We put a huge amount of resources into senior’s care and ignore people who are disabled but still young. We don’t support them appropriately and make ensuring they get supports for their disability their full time job(… )How does this help the  young business owner with rheumatoid arthritis get her $30K a year biologics? She’ll have to  fold her business, and go on government assistance to get her drugs, and that’s just bizarre.[viii]

To make matters worse, a person with a disability is expected to find part time employment, but is seriously incommoded by the lack of access to the job market. Jongbloed cites a study by G. Fawcett, noting that only 40 percent of persons with disability in the age range of 15-64 are employed. “The representation of people with disabilities in the labour force,” she says “can be increased with such measures as affirmative action and contract compliance (…) but the response of the federal government in these areas have been weak. Affirmative action must be mandatory to be effective.” [ix]

By contrast, the push for more access to the work force is actually one of the more progressive goals of Canadian provincial disability plans, if not always the most effectively actioned, especially when the tax revenue from working disabled persons is taken into account. The consequence of a failed policy can be observed in other jurisdictions, particularly in the United States. In her article Unfit For Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America, Chana Joffe-Walt of National Public Radio in the US investigated the state of Social Security Disability (the US’s federally funded disability plan) and found that not only was the system being used a societal crutch, but the cost to American tax payers is astronomical. In Hale County, Alabama, one in four persons draw benefits from Social Security Disability, and have effectively disappeared from the economy:

Once people go onto disability, they almost never go back to work. Fewer than 1 percent of those who were on the federal program for disabled workers at the beginning of 2011 have  returned to the workforce(…)in most cases going on disability means you will not work, you will not get a raise, you will not get whatever meaning people get from work. Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life- and it’s a deal 14 million Americans have signed up for[x]

Joffe-Walt notes the impact of disability lawyers like Binder and Binder who profit by creating more government beneficiaries. They made $68.7 million in fees in 2010, paid directly from the reserves in the disability insurance program- which are on are on track to run out in 2016. [xi]

While matters in Canada are unlikely to reach this extreme, the provincial disability systems are creating more dependency by failing to provide sufficient transitional support to persons with disabilities wishing to enter the job market, not only by failing to give them adequate means, but by having no recourse to enforce hiring policies on employers. M.G Westmorland and R. Williams, in their article Employers and Policy Makers Can Make a Difference, outline recommendations for increasing the scope for the employment of persons with disabilities.

 Instead the focus is on managing the ability/abilities of the workforce in general rather than a small group (those with disabilities) in particular. The latter would suggest that Ministries of  Labour would be important policy drivers in this respect and in fact some countries do have  these ministries responsible in part for policies related to employment for persons with   disabilities.6 In Canada the federally funded Conference Board of Canada has already provided tools that can inform policy with respect to employment equity for persons with disabilities. If   this population is to be treated equally as part of the labour force, it makes sense to have the  relevant Ministry of Labour onside in terms of developing labour policy that does not disadvantage persons with disabilities.[xii]

There is also very little in the literature of British Columbia or Ontario’s disability policies with reference to post-secondary education. While virtually all post-secondary institutions have disability and access policies of their own, they do not operate under the same authority as provincial disability programs. Neither, bafflingly, do their disability financial aid structures. Not only does this disparity foster a sense that education is privilege and not an entitlement for persons with disability, it shows the underlying failure to sufficiently serve young adults with disabilities. Ultimately, it highlights the shortcomings and disadvantages of a fragmented disability policy.

The following, in order to have a more progressive, effective and socially responsible disability policy, must be actioned:

  • an employment access policy
  • greater financial flexibility for persons with disabilities
  • a separate benefit plan for those who do not need financial assistance (and for those who will eventually transition away from financial assistance) that is not contingent on means testing
  • a greater diversity of ways by which an individual may advance- whether economically, through retraining or skills training, or in post-secondary education.

In order to make those things possible and practical, disability ministries must be mostly autonomous from welfare ministries, and must have authority over any provincial government program that offers disability benefits, such as Student Aid or work programs. Beyond that, it becomes incumbent upon the federal government (under the auspices of the Charter, which protect disabled persons) to pass affirmative action legislation. The federal government should also facilitate the adherence of service standards for all provincial disability programs, based on the principles that are already generally agreed upon by most provincial legislation: provide support, enfranchisement and advancement for people who are in any way physically or mentally disadvantaged in society.












Canada. British Columbia. “Improving Services to People.” Government, Community Living British Columbia, 2011.

Canada. Ontario. “Ontario Disability Support Program – Income Support Directives.” 1997.

Joffe-Walt, Chana. “Unfit For Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America.” March 2013.

Jongbloed, Lyn. “Disability Policy in Canada.” Journal of Disability Policy Studies 13, no. 4, 2003.

Robertson, Roselind, interview by Victoria De Capua. Policy Analyst (March 24th, 2014).

Westmorland, M. G., and R Williams. “”Employers and Policy Makers Can Make A Difference To The Employment of Persons With Disabilities.” Disability & Rehabilitation 24, no. 15, 2002: 802-809.



[i] (Jongbloed 2003)

[ii] (Jongbloed 2003)

[iii] (Canada. British Columbia. 2011)

[iv] (Canada. Ontario. 1997)

[v] (Jongbloed 2003)

[vi] (Jongbloed 2003)

[vii] (Robertson 2014)

[viii] (Robertson 2014)

[ix] (Jongbloed 2003)

[x] (Joffe-Walt 2013)

[xi] (Joffe-Walt 2013)

[xii] (Westmorland and Williams 2002)


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