On Living With Disabilities and Poverty

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My name is Michèle Gyselinck and I've been living with schizophrenia for 30 years and with poverty for 21 of those years. You see, after I graduated with my second B.A. in English Studies with a Major in Professional Writing in English (which I completed with a G.P.A. of 2.82 or between B- and B), I was unable to find lasting employment that would accommodate my limitations and had to fall back on social assistance to meet my basic needs for a roof over my head, food, clothes and medication to name only a few. 

One thing about living with a disability in Canada—and I’m sure it’s true in the States as well—is that the government punishes you for for your disability by making you live in poverty. The disability income I get from the provincial government keeps me about $5,000 below the poverty level for a single person living alone, and the argument that people who don’t work have fewer expenses than those who do doesn’t justify that kind of cheapness. But welfare recipients have a bad rap and are convenient targets for governments to pick on because taxpayers see us as freeloaders, and Québec makes no effort to dispel that myth, or at least makes very feeble and inconsistent efforts that don’t stick in the collective mind. And if my mom were not helping me out financially, I’d be VERY tight, so I need the extra income that something like contract work would bring me.

I think we COULD work harder in advocating a decent standard of living for people living with disabilities. Granted, we in Canada don’t have some of the expenses that American citizens have to pay with Medicaid, and in Québec our meds are covered by the provincial government, but still. It’s bad enough to be sick without having to put up with poverty as well. It causes undue stress when you have to worry about how you’re going to pay the rent or utility bills, and you have to depend on soup kitchens to eat at the end of the month—or even halfway through. Living in poverty places undue burdens on already vulnerable souls, burdens like constant humiliation, feeling despised by other people and so on.

One of the humiliations I have often experienced was unwelcome comments about how I spent “my” money. Because taxpayers feel that they are paying for your support, they consider themselves entitled to comment on how people who receive government support manage what little money we get, and that is VERY oppressive to the spirit. According to some people, the poor should not be allowed to ever have fun or relax while other people work. It doesn’t seem to occur to most people that many people with disabilities would rather work than have to ask for handouts all the time, but because our limitations often make it difficult to find jobs that would accommodate those limitations, we’re forced to fall back on programs like Welfare or Disability Income.

Don’t think that I got two B.A.s with the avowed intent of sitting at home while others head off to work in the morning. I was ALSO hoping for a career doing gratifying work and getting paid for it. But life threw a wrench in those dreams, and whereas I don’t mind opportunities to do it on a volunteer basis, I would love to do it for pay.

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Participant

Thanks for your words, Michele.  It was just over 6 years ago that I had to stop working at a job that I loved because of my disabilities.  I was advised to apply for CPP Disability, which I did.  I dipped into my personal RRSP to supplement my income to meet my needs, and purchased additional Blue Cross benefits.  My mistake is that I did not explore other avenues of income for persons with disabilities, specifically Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) in Alberta.  It would have paid the health care expenses, enabled me to attend therapeutic pool exercises for free, and provided me with an income that would have taken into account the mortgage I am still paying on, plus saved my RRSP funds for my retirement years. 

Late last fall I turned the page into "seniorhood", and things have changed again.  Between CPP and provincial seniors' income, I take in several hundred more a month, have many more health and lifestyle benefits are available to me at no or minimal cost, and I am now in a position to decrease the rate at which I use up my RRSP funds.

The point is, there is financial discrimination against persons with disabilities, even in Canada.  If you are facing job loss due to disability, take the time to research income strategies that will best meet your needs.  An informed social worker can be a huge help.  Research charitable organizations (e.g. Heart & Stroke, Parkinson's Society, Mental Health Society, Arthritis Society) that can assist you by providing items or services that would be helpful to you for free at significantly reduced cost.  They can also provide a wealth of information on how to go about meeting your needs at minimal or no cost, as well as plan effectively for the future.  If you are unable to do all this for yourself, seek out a trusted family member or friend to assist you.

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