Jennifer Stewart has lived with a developmental disability her whole life. She started walking later than most people and learned at a slower place. Eventually, Stewart was able to find an office job at an oil and gas company doing duties such as filing records and stocking kitchens. For 21 years, going to work raised Stewart’s self-esteem and gave her the chance to earn her own money. Her situation changed, however, when she was let go last February. Still unemployed, Stewart says searching for work in today’s job market is frustrating, especially when most places aren’t looking for people with disabilities.
“They expect you to do multiple things and, because of my disability, I’m not able to do all those jobs at once.”
Though finding work has been daunting, one of the biggest challenges Stewart has dealt with is the feeling of being another number. According to Statistics Canada, about one-quarter of the six million Canadians living with a disability are unemployed. People with disabilities are also twice as likely to live below the poverty line.
“I was very proud because I was one of the only people that had a job,” Stewart explains. “When I lost my job, I went through a lot of anger … I just felt like, ‘Oh my god, I’m just another statistic.’”
Since then, Stewart has been able to live off her Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, a welfare program that provides a monthly income to over 67,000 Albertans with permanent disabilities. The amount of AISH a person receives varies based on their income. Being unemployed, Stewart is eligible to receive the full amount of $1,685 per month, which helps cover basic living expenses such as rent and bus fare. Stewart also receives money from the Persons with Developmental Disabilities program to pay for a live-in support worker.
Scraping by on AISH
With additional assistance from her mom, Stewart has been able to afford her monthly expenses, which total around $1,500. But, she recognizes this is not the case for all people on AISH.
“Everybody’s situation is different,” she says. “A big chunk of people are having to live month-to-month with $20 to their name once they’re finished paying all their bills.”
Living on that kind of tight AISH budget is a reality that university student Mary Salvani faces every day. Salvani has dyspraxia, a lifelong disorder that impairs motor skills. On top of grocery bills and rent for her small one-bedroom apartment, Salvani pays for school by working odd jobs and saving anything from AISH that is left over, which is usually $100 at most.
“I always have to keep an ongoing calculator in my head,” says Salvani.
Although Salvani says she would likely be on the streets if she didn’t have AISH, it’s stressful making sure she has enough money to live on every month.This has been a common problem among AISH recipients for years. But it’s one that will only worsen under the UCP’s proposed changes to disability benefits, leaving advocates and those who rely on the program worried.
Affording a life of dignity
The Disability Action Hall is amongst those who are concerned. For years, the Calgary-based advocacy group has worked to improve the lives of people with disabilities, and fighting on their behalf for basic income.
“People are told to be thankful for what they get,” says co-ordinator Colleen Huston. “If you ask what is a basic income, it’s really about being able to cover the essentials and living a life of dignity.”
AISH has long been at the center of this conversation. Established in 1979, the program was intended to meet the needs of severely handicapped Albertans. Year after year, however, AISH has continued to fall short in covering the cost of living. For example, in 2012, the maximum monthly living allowance for AISH was $1,188. The amount was barely enough for people to meet their basic needs, a gap that Huston says stemmed from a lack of understanding around what it’s like to have a disability.
In response, the Disability Action Hall created the 1188 Challenge, which asked Alberta’s politicians to live for one month on the same amount as AISH recipients. The campaign saw the Redford government raise AISH by $400 per month. Though Huston says they were “incredibly happy” with the change, the government only fulfilled part of their request. In addition to an increase in monthly living allowances, the group had also asked for AISH, along with other social assistance programs such as Alberta Works and Alberta Senior Support, to be indexed to the cost of living.
According to Huston, tying AISH to annual increases in inflation would meet the needs of recipients and also free the government from trying to do big catch-ups in funding. A big victory came in 2018 when the NDP government announced they would be indexing AISH according to inflation. Although the change equated to a $100 monthly increase, there was still room for improvement as AISH had only been indexed to 2015 standards, not to the current year.
Two steps back
Following the release of the 2019 budget, the UCP government put a pause on AISH indexing, which came as a surprise to the Disability Action Hall. During the election campaign, UCP spokesperson Matt Solberg told Postmedia the party wouldn’t make any changes to the program and would continue with indexing. Premier Jason Kenney also dispelled claims of the party cutting AISH as “complete rubbish,” adding that the UCP had supported the NDP government’s legislation to increase AISH benefits.
In a September interview with Alberta Views, Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney said she was “fully supportive” of AISH being indexed and saw it as “compassionate” and “sensible.” The indexing would have added $32 per month, bringing the basic living allowance to a total of $1,717.
“It was very upsetting because I think people were hopeful,” Stewart says. “Doing that was kind of cruel on [Jason Kenney’s] part … I just think it’s mean to give somebody something and then take it away.”
The UCP defended that decision in the 2019 fiscal plan, stating that the de-indexation would reduce costs by $10 million in the upcoming year. The plan also stated Alberta’s AISH is “much higher” than anywhere else in the country.
“We pay so much more than other provinces in AISH benefits, it would take around 20 years of inflation for the next most generous province to reach Alberta benefit levels,” the budget said. However, Huston says this comparison is “apples to oranges” as the services that different social programs provide vary across provinces.
Executive director of Public Interest Alberta Joel French adds that by de-indexing AISH, the government is “actively making life worse for people with disabilities.” While the program hasn’t technically been cut, de-indexing will reduce the purchasing power of monthly payments as living costs increase every year with inflation.
“We’re going to see a drop in their standard of living, and these are some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” says French. “I think as Albertans we like to believe that we’re better than that, but our government is not reflecting that.”
These changes are also concerning to Huston, who says the pause on AISH will set people with disabilities back to when they were living on a monthly allowance of $1,188. The effects of less income will cause more people to make “unsafe decisions based on their budget” as they select which of their basic needs to pay for. More people with disabilities falling under the poverty line will also lead to a greater strain on crisis services and charities. And that problem will only worsen with the number of clients on AISH having risen last year by almost 10 per cent. As the caseload keeps growing, Huston says de-indexing AISH will be more expensive in the long-run as people with disabilities fall further behind.
The Disability Action Hall is a Calgary-based advocacy group made up of people with disabilities and their allies. Since 1998, the group has worked towards improving services for Alberta’s disability community. Photo by: Andrea Wong.
“I’m very concerned about the social fabric of Alberta, and it’s so tied to just making sure people are okay,” says Huston. “It’s just going to cost a lot more money later if we continue to not fund things appropriately.” For AISH recipients like Salvani, her worry about expenses will only continue.
“It makes it harder to afford things in the future like rent, food and all that stuff. It’s going to just create a bigger gap,” she says. “I feel like I can barely keep up with the changes all the time.”
When asked what she would want to tell the Alberta government, Savani said, “Please index it and listen to the disabled folks when they say they need something. It’s not that they are saying it because they want a million bucks. It’s because they want to live.”
As AISH, along with other social programs, receive cuts and other changes under the new budget, it is unlikely that de-indexing will be reversed in the next three years. In the meantime, the Disability Action Hall has plans to make a budget submission and meet with the Community and Social Services minister to make lives better for Albertans.
“As Albertans we’ve got to work together, and we can’t be siloed in these little different meeting rooms,” says Huston.
“This is not an individual’s problem, and I think that’s important for people to work together.”
- By Andrea Wong