December 3, International Day of Persons with Disabilities, is an opportunity to reflect on the discrimination faced by people with disabilities, but also to renew our commitment to fight for inclusion and equity.
This year, it is especially important to speak out about the injustices and inequity experienced by people with disabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased inequality for those in marginalized groups, and has created new barriers for people with disabilities, particularly for women with disabilities, and racialized and Indigenous people with disabilities.
Impact of COVID-19
In Canada, people with disabilities face discrimination, unemployment and underemployment, higher rates of poverty, and barriers to accessing many services. Workers with disabilities also often face difficulties receiving proper accommodations and encounter barriers to hiring and promotion.
In 2020, the inequities facing people with disabilities have been amplified. More than one third of people with long-term conditions or disabilities experienced a temporary or permanent job loss or reduced hours during the pandemic, according to a recent study by Statistics Canada. About one third also reported a decrease in their income. In many cases, the reduced income significantly impacted their ability to meet their food and grocery needs and purchase personal protective equipment. Over half of the study participants had difficulty meeting at least one financial obligation or essential need.
On top of the additional income and employment hardships faced by people with disabilities during the pandemic, the federal government’s financial support for Canadians has discriminated against people with disabilities. Many people with disabilities and health conditions who qualify for disability benefits did not qualify for the more generous COVID-19 benefits, like CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit). Recently, the government rolled out a small, one-time payment of $600 for certain people with disabilities, but this benefit excludes many because in order to qualify, you must be approved for the Disability Tax Credit or Canada Pension Plan (CPP) Disability benefits, which are difficult to access and apply only to severe and prolonged disabilities.
On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, PSAC calls on the government to:
- Increase economic assistance and provide better income and employment supports to people with disabilities during the recovery period;
- Adequately fund the long-term care system and make it public;
- Create a strong long-term mental health strategy with adequate funding and universal access to mental health professionals, including mental health resources specifically for women, racialized, Indigenous and LGBTQ2+ communities.
Long-term care facilities and other care institutions
Seniors with disabilities who live in long-term care facilities have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. We must also not forget people who live in group homes for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, those who regularly access health care and other institutions, as well as those who require supportive housing (e.g., home care). The outbreaks in long-term care facilities and other facilities have exposed how people with disabilities have been left behind.
Those living in care homes that are run by private, for-profit companies are more vulnerable. The risk of dying from COVID-19 is significantly higher in private facilities than it is in municipally run or non-profit homes. For-profit operators minimize staffing costs by having fewer staff, paying lower wages, providing fewer benefits, and offering less job security. They also have fewer staff with formal qualifications. Revera, one of the largest private sector long term care providers in Canada, has had hundreds of deaths in its facilities and is currently facing lawsuits. PSAC, the Canadian Health Coalition, and other unions have been calling on the government to address the crisis in long term care and to make Revera public.
Mental health disabilities are increasing
Mental health disabilities are increasing due to increasing stress and isolation during the pandemic. Canadians are reporting worsening mental health and higher rates of alcohol and drug use, which puts people at increased risk for long-term mental health conditions. As well, suicide rates and distress calls have been increasing during the pandemic. The mental health impact has been much greater on women, racialized and Indigenous people.
While governments, employers and the media often talk about “wellness” and individual ways to address mental health, there is little focus on the barriers and inequality faced by people with mental health disabilities. Many people with physical disabilities also have mental health disabilities, and due to the stress of the pandemic, have reported worsening mental health in the past several months.
The federal government has introduced new funding for mental health supports, but many people still cannot access mental health professionals, particularly psychologists and social workers. Canada is still lacking a strong long-term strategy with adequate funding to ensure that everyone has access to the mental health care they need.
In June 2019, the federal government passed the Accessible Canada Act that aims to make the federal public service and federally regulated services and workplaces accessible and inclusive. PSAC supports the goals of the legislation and will be pushing the government to pass strong and effective regulations to ensure the Act results in practical change, addressing the adverse impacts that COVID-19 has highlighted.