'Don't tell me I don't understand, because I do,' says Michelle Stilwell.
'I truly understand that people were hoping for more of an increase to their rates,' says Minister Michelle Stilwell. Photo: Gov't of BC Flickr.
Under pressure for taking away free transit passes from people with disabilities, the minister responsible said she understands what they are going through since she herself has received government disability benefits in the past.
"I truly understand that people were hoping for more of an increase to their rates," said Michelle Stilwell, the minister of social development and social innovation.
"As a person with a disability, I know exactly what they go through each and every day," she said in the B.C. legislature. "I've lived it. I've been there. I've been on income assistance, so don't tell me I don't understand, because I do."
Stilwell, who grew up in Manitoba and attended university in Alberta, has used a wheelchair since breaking her neck in a fall when she was 17 years old.
"I found myself in a situation where I couldn't go home to my family where there was a raised kitchen, a sunken living room and my bedroom was up a spiral staircase," Stilwell told The Tyee.
Due to how the injury happened, there was no help from vehicle insurance or workers' compensation as there might be in other circumstances. "I found myself in a situation to figure things out," she said. "I relied on government supports to get me back on my feet."
She received those benefits between 1992 and 1994, she said. "I don't think it's something that anybody wants to make common knowledge. It's not something that I hide. It's part of my life. It's how I've gotten to where I am."
Government 'out of touch', says advocate
Stilwell mentioned her experience on a day when a few hundred people gathered on the steps of the legislature to protest a recently announced government policy that next September will raise disability assistance rates but take away transit passes and transportation subsidies.
The rate for an individual has been frozen at $906 a month since 2007. The $77-a-month increase will be partially cancelled out for about 55,000 of the 100,000 people receiving disability benefits as the government stops paying for $55 a month transit passes and $66 a month transportation subsidies.
At the protest, one person in a wheelchair had a cardboard "Air Christy" airplane with a pinwheel on the front, a reference to a controversy over Premier Christy Clark billing taxpayers for private charter flights. Others carried signs with slogans like, "let them take private jets" and "just raise the rates."
"Our provincial government has kept people with disabilities and others living in poverty and marginalized in our community for much too long," Together Against Poverty Society executive director Kelly Newhook told the crowd. "When people have been kept in poverty that long, every dollar matters."
A petition on the issue was gaining 200 signatures an hour and by Wednesday was up to 12,000 names, said Faith Bodnar, the executive director of the advocacy group Inclusion BC. "We've exposed a government that is out of touch," she said. "This government is out of step with the reality of people with disabilities and people on [disability assistance]."
Government officials are wrong to claim they are making the system more fair, Bodnar said. "All you did was equalize poverty for people with disabilities in B.C... This is wrong, it's not fair and it's mean."
NDP leader John Horgan led the crowd in a chant of, "Christy Clark is out of gas, give us back our bus pass."
Minister 'onward and upward'
Stilwell has defended the change, saying the government is spending $170 million to raise the rates and that the increase is enough that any individual who wants to keep the bus pass can. For the government to raise the rates and continue providing the passes would cost another $20 million a year, she said.
She said she regrets the fear and anxiety around the change, but that it will be fairer to the 45,000 people receiving disability assistance who do not currently receive support for transportation.
While noting that some people will always rely on support from the government, Stilwell said the province is focused on people's abilities and supporting them to get back into the workforce if possible.
"Somebody with a disability, whether it's acquired or you're born with your disability, you have extra challenges, and I certainly acknowledge those challenges, and government is there to support as best we can to wrap things around individuals to give them that helping hand," she said.
In Stilwell's case, regulations like those currently in B.C. allowed her to continue receiving assistance while going to university, she said. "I worked very hard in my studies," she said. "I got grants and bursaries, and as you know I'm an athlete, so I also got grants and bursaries that way, and found my way to a science degree, and onward and upward."
Stilwell has won four gold medals and a silver in the Paralympics, most of them for wheelchair racing. She was elected in 2013 to represent Parksville-Qualicum.
People feel betrayed: NDP
"It would not be for me to comment on someone's lived experience as they express it," said Inclusion BC's Bodnar when asked about Stilwell disclosing that she'd once received disability benefits.
Talking about some of the people who were at the rally, Bodnar said, "I think there might be a big difference between their lived experience and the minister's." She added, "I just don't think they're comparable in any way that serves the higher purpose of what we're talking about."
The government needs to keep the $77 raise in place, further raise the rates, index them to inflation, and sort out people's transportation needs separately, she said. "It's a mess, and it's not looking good on the ministry what they're doing here," she said. "I think on this particular issue, [Stilwell] appears not to be listening to people."
NDP social development critic Michelle Mungall said the issue is not about Stilwell and her past experience. "This is about people who are currently receiving [person with disability benefits] and the decisions that she's making," Mungall said.
"What I'm hearing from people with disabilities is they feel abandoned and betrayed," she said. "They don't feel like she understands what they are going through and the very real choices they have to make."
It's unfair to force vulnerable people to choose between buying a bus pass and using the rate increase for hydro, food and other necessities, Mungall said. "I hope [Stilwell's] feeling pressure from the 300 people [at the protest] and the thousands and thousands of people around the province who are calling on her to stop the bus pass clawback."
If Stilwell reflecting on her own experience and relating it to what other people are going through leads to the right decision on the bus pass clawback, that would be good, she said.