The Canada Disability Benefit Act is progress worth celebrating
It is worth pausing to acknowledge when we make progress, to stand back and consider the long road we travelled to get here, and how that journey will continue. This is one of those times. The Canada Disability Benefit Act (Bill C-22) has become law in Canada. This is good news for many reasons, and here are two.
First, it is a measure to prevent poverty that is protected by law. It adds to our system of legal protections, which include laws such as the National Housing Strategy Act (2019) and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (2005). These laws are important symbolically, as they codify our society’s commitment to uphold our economic and social rights. They are also important practically, as they require governments to set out rules about how they will put that commitment into action.
In this case, it means that the federal government will provide some regular income to working-age people with disabilities, who live in poverty at a disproportionate rate. In doing so, it must consider Canada’s official poverty line, the additional costs associated with living with a disability, and Canada’s international human rights obligations. The Canada Disability Benefit has the potential to change the daily lives of people with disabilities for the better. This is a key milestone.
Second, the Canada Disability Benefit Act is the result of decades of work and advocacy. It builds on important work that came before, such as the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP), that was itself the result of work by community advocates such as Al Etmanski, political leaders such as former finance minister Jim Flaherty, and champions inside the public service.
The disability sector worked long and hard to build the case, with broad and deep analyses of the problems facing people with disabilities and the potential public policy changes that could help fix those problems. It built up networks and coalitions that shared knowledge and capacity. It identified and supported community leaders, particularly people with lived experience of disability, who are now rightly the foremost voices speaking on disability issues. It also built relationships with governments, with all the give and take this entails: the exchange and sharpening of ideas, the adapting to changes in government and in our society, the ongoing building of trust and mutual respect.
Through the years, the disability sector steadily, relentlessly, advocated for change. And when the window of opportunity opened, the sector was ready. Ready to stand up for their human rights, and ready to work together for a viable solution.
The Canada Disability Benefit Act is good news, though it is not the final word. The Act will not be implemented until the end of 2024 at the earliest. We must be vigilant and continuously monitor how this law is put into operation. The federal government has committed to co-creating the regulations that will determine how the benefit works, together with community leaders and people with disabilities. This, too, is good news. “Nothing about us without us” is a call that came from the disability sector that has spread to many other areas where people are advocating for their right to participate in the public decisions that affect them the most.
Writing the regulations will raise many practical questions, and the answers will determine whether the benefit lives up to its potential. For example: Who will be eligible? How much income will it provide? How will we ensure that it does not result in claw-backs or disqualifications from other income supports; income supports such as provincial or territorial social assistance benefits that are inadequate to begin with? We will have to strike a balance between the urgent need to get this money into people’s wallets and allowing enough time to get the process and regulations right. And we should be sure that people with disabilities get sufficient support to lead their lives with dignity.
The work is not over. The next phase of innovation, co-creation, and implementation has begun.
When we work for social change, we are constantly pushing for more, and for good reason. But we should also recognize when significant progress has been made. We can find inspiration and motivation to keep at it knowing that our efforts can pay off.
The Canada Disability Benefit Act is a historic step forward for our social protection systems. Maytree will continue to support our colleagues in this work to ensure it improves the daily lives of people with disabilities across Canada.
- A Basic Income Plan for Canadians with Severe Disabilities (Caledon Institute of Social Policy, 2010)