Province pushes for changes to disability assistance

“It may work for some but the trouble is once you’re signed on, there’s no getting off it and that’s why you have to be careful.”

The increasingly faceless world of toll free help lines and online services can present a host of difficulties for a certain sector of society – those with learning disabilities.

The province is rolling out more incentives this year for people receiving disability assistance (PWD, meaning Persons with Disabilities) that sound good on paper, but maybe aren’t so helpful in practise.

Effective Jan. 1, the annualized earnings exemption is being touted by the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation as a flexible program that allows those on PWD to earn more money.

And there’s an additional push for those individuals to visit web services rather than head to a ministry office for help to administer or complete the detailed routine paperwork.

Sounds good, but not so fast, says Sheila Adcock from downtown Trail’s Career Development Services. “They started really pushing last year by sending everybody a letter in the mail,” said Adcock. “It may work for some but the trouble is that once you’re signed on, there’s no getting off it and that’s why you have to be careful.”

Collecting PWD requires a lengthy screening process and confirmation of diagnosis for medical issues whether physical, mental or invisible, like certain learning disabilities. Most people with lifelong conditions can’t go it alone, they need an advocate to guide them through the ministry’s complex and ongoing process.

Adcock discussed the story of one person who signed up for the annual earning exemptions program last year after he received a ministry letter by mail.

Individuals on PWD receive just over $900 monthly from the government, she explained, but they can earn $800 each month, or $9600 yearly without being penalized.

“Anything over that amount is taken off dollar for dollar,” she said. “That might be great for someone who only works seasonally, because they can earn up to $9600 for, say, a four month period.”

This particular man, however, works part time throughout the year. By working regular hours, he earned the maximum, $9600, before the end of September.

“So in October, he comes in to see me and says he cannot pay his rent and he has an eviction notice,” explained Adcock. “His car was going to be repossessed which meant he would lose his job. For three months, he had no disability assistance,” she noted. “The only money he had to live on was from his part time job – and he almost lost that.”

Advocating for her client, Adcock contacted the ministry to have the man removed from the program so he could go back to successfully budgeting $1706 ($906 PWD, and $800 from his job) each month to cover rent, food, and transportation.

“I contacted the ministry and said you need to cancel this because he can’t do this,” she explained. “They said once you’ve signed up for it, you can’t cancel.”

After a conundrum of problems which included reaching out to the ombudsman service, the man was removed from the list. This year he’s back to work and any earnings over $800 will be removed from his PWD each month.

“If someone works consistent hours and gets to keep an extra couple hundred dollars a month, they will end up in trouble,” said Adcock. “In this case, he had no idea and didn’t know what to do. He just about ended up in the psych ward because of all the stress.”

Another aspect that has persons with disabilities having less face-to-face contact with ministry workers, is the province’s push for people to access services through the web or over the phone.

“It’s not for anyone who has any kind of learning disability,” said Adcock. “You have to be computer savvy and have a home computer, and some don’t even have a phone.”

Setting up government services online requires a host of applications that need to be acquired, such as a BC ID card.

All of the programs require specific codes and passwords, which can confuse almost anyone.

“Even for the average person, the process is daunting, scary and complicated,” she added.

The latest statistics for British Columbia, according to the latest (2009) living wage study is that for a people to live above the poverty line in this province, they must earn $20.10 per hour and anyone bringing in less than $18,421 is considered low income.

According to a province news release, the new annualized earning exemption is a result of a successful pilot project, which was introduced to 1,500 in 2013.