By Alice Chen
Since the beginning of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has spread rapidly across the world, directly affecting millions of people. On January 29, Canadians stranded in outbreak-affected regions of China prepared to return to Canada (1). On February 26, the Minister of Health recommended stockpiling food to prepare for potential emergencies. On March 12, Sophie Trudeau, wife of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, tested positive for COVID-19. In March, over 1 million Canadians became unemployed. Over the past five months, the Canadian government has launched a series of economic stimulus programs to mitigate many of the short-term effects of COVID-19, many targeted towards specific communities and demographics.
People with disabilities likely encounter increased challenges, including vulnerability to COVID-19, due to pre-existing health conditions and reliance on caregivers while social distancing measures are in place. Among the 6.2 million Canadians above the age of 15 with a disability, 36 percent rely on help from non-family members. Significant overlap exists between two identified groups especially affected by the health risks of the pandemic, as 1.4 million people 70 years or older have one or more disabilities and 30 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada are residents over age 60 (1, 2). Many also live in poverty. According to Statistics Canada, up to 28% of people with severe disabilities live below the poverty line (1, 2). A survey conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta found that 40% of survey respondents with disabilities have increased their credit card debt and over 30% are struggling to pay rent, mortgage, and utility bills since the beginning of the pandemic (1). These factors suggest that Canadians with disabilities are more likely to be affected by the economic consequences of the pandemic.
Introduction to the Canadian COVID-19 Disability Assistance
In response, the Canadian government announced June 5th that individuals who currently qualify for the Disability Tax Credit (DTC) would receive a one-time payment of up to 600 Canadian dollars in addition to other COVID-19 relief payments (1, 2). The bill proposing COVID-related aid for Canadians with disabilities was initially blocked by opposition parties for a multitude of reasons, including controversy regarding other proposals included in the bill and a push by the Conservative party to resume normal activity in the House of Commons.
Introduced in 1988, the DTC is a non-refundable tax credit for people with “severe and prolonged impairment” in mental or physical functions (1). Critics of the DTC point to statistics demonstrating that many Canadians with disabilities are not covered by the DTC (in the 2017 Canadian Disability Survey, 6.2 million people identified as having a disability, 2.7 million report having a severe disability, but only 1.2 million people are registered to receive the DTC), indirectly arguing that the criteria proposed by the government to provide aid are too stringent and therefore inaccessible (1, 2, 3).
In response to criticisms levied by the public, the federal government expanded its proposal, offering a one-time, tax-free payment of 600 dollars to all residents who are registered to receive the DTC, the Canada Pension Plan disability benefit, the Quebec Pension Plan disability benefit, or Disability Veterans Affairs Canada (1). This update increases the expected number of people who qualify for additional economic support provided for people with disabilities increases from 1.2 million to 1.7 million (1 , 2 , 3 ). On July 21st, Bill C-20, the legislation containing the amended proposals for financial relief, passed unanimously.
Further Criticism and Limitations
Federal government payments will likely provide concrete benefits in covering additional costs from COVID-19-related shutdowns. After initial criticism from two opposition parties on the accessibility of this relief measure, the federal government revised mandatory qualifications. Several other concerns remain.
While the revisions increased the number of recipients by 0.5 million people, it is still at least 1 million less than the number of people who identify as having a severe disability in Canada in 2017. As residents in Canada with disabilities will receive the DTC-related benefit in addition to broader financial assistance, the question is whether 600 dollars represents the average or most common difference in financial need between individuals with and without disabilities. As with most labels, DTC is an umbrella term that fails to acknowledge the large spectrum of needs and abilities in recipients of the DTC. As such, while 600 dollars may be sufficient for some, it may not be for others, and the lump sum automatically deposited in each recipient’s bank account offers no opportunity to express exceptional needs and costs.
Furthermore, direct comparisons to Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) has underscored problems with the disability assistance. Many people with disabilities do not work, making them ineligible for CERB, which is a sum of 2000 dollars for a 4-week period, renewable for up to 24 weeks. As such, an individual who has lost their job due to COVID-19 can receive up to 12,000 dollars, compared to a 600 dollars one-time payment to cover additional costs over a five-month shutdown. Advocates have also leveled criticism at the application and criteria of the disability payment. Michael Prince, a professor of social policy at the University of Victoria suggests that the simplicity of CERB highlighted the complex process and eligibility requirements for disability assistance (1).
Canada’s economic relief plan specifically allocated for individuals with disabilities is unprecedented internationally (1, 2). While the total dollar value and percentage of GDP of COVID-related aid of numerous developed countries surpasses that of Canada’s, the specific acknowledgement of people with disabilities and the added financial pressures they face because of the pandemic is unique (1). The unanimous passing of Bill C-20 demonstrates concrete backing of the support the government expressed, and the expansion of the number of qualified recipients demonstrates some concern for accessibility. Overall, although Canada’s financial relief for individuals with disabilities is laudable for its consideration and concrete impact, the benefits are limited. Critical questions regarding whether the assistance is sufficient, accessible, and equitable, remain.