"Attacking people with disabilities is the lowest display of power I can think of." -- Actor Morgan Freeman
Last week's B.C. budget briefly raised the hopes of people with disabilities who had suffered nine years without an increase in benefits -- and then crushed them when the truth came out.
This is an ugly story of what first seemed like slightly good intentions turning into an attack on people who most need our help.
BC Liberal Finance Minister Mike de Jong announced last Tuesday a $77 increase in disability benefits -- the first since 2007 -- but the hike from $906.42 per month for a single person won't take effect until September 2016.
But there was also a catch. Then another. And another.
First, when I questioned de Jong and finance ministry officials at the budget media lockup on Feb. 16, they admitted that the $66 per month Special Transportation Subsidy about 20,000 disability benefits recipients now receive will be subtracted from their $77 increase, leaving them with just an $11 a month improvement.
That's only a 1.2 per cent benefits increase -- and when you average that over the nine years without any hike, the annual increase is infinitesimal, just 0.13 per cent.
When I asked de Jong if the tiny amount wasn't unfair, he responded: "For that group, the impact is very modest."
No kidding. But it gets worse.
Roughly another 35,000 British Columbians with disabilities get a transit pass, and they will now have to start paying $52 a month for that pass for the first time. Subtracting $52 from the $77 a month increase leaves just $25 more a month -- a 2.75 per cent increase over nine years, not even close to inflation that has gone up over 10 per cent.
But then it gets worse again. The government has confirmed that in addition to being charged a new $52 a month bus pass fee, people with disabilities will also still pay a previous $45 annual "administration fee" for passes.
So the measly $25 disability benefits monthly increase is even further cut by $3.75 -- the cost of the $45 a year administration fee -- meaning their hike is just $21.25 a month.
So for those 35,000 people, that's a rate increase of only 2.3 per cent over nine long years. Thanks, Liberals!
Either way, the $11 or $21.25 a month increase for those affected might leave them enough to buy a few extra cauliflowers, but not much more.
Chris Halarewich, who has cerebral palsy and lives in Castlegar, contacted me to say that because he receives the Special Transportation Subsidy and is worried his $11 net increase might "balance out to nothing."
"I would say get rid of the $77 top up and put back the $66 Special Transportation Subsidy and free bus passes -- we'd be better off," Halarewich said.
Calls to reverse cruel changes
The BC Liberal government has overall played an astonishingly cruel trick on people with disabilities.
Everyone should be outraged about this, if only because all of us are just one accident or illness away from permanent disability.
The Disability Alliance of BC is calling on the government to reconsider the bus pass change.
"Since the announcement of the elimination of the $45 annual bus pass program for [disability assistance] recipients, there's been a groundswell of concern from across the disability community: organizations, representing families, poverty, and advocacy groups are speaking out about the negative impact they believe this change will have," Alliance executive director Jane Dyson said in an email interview.
Dyson said the controversy is unfortunate given that "over the last 18 months the province has implemented several positive changes as part of its Accessibility 2024 Initiative to make B.C. the most progressive province in Canada for people with disabilities."
The Alliance "respectfully urges the minister to get back on track with this positive direction and rescind the plan to eliminate the $45 annual bus pass," Dyson said.
There's also a fast-growing petition from advocacy group Inclusion BC demanding the government reverse its clawback of transit funding.
'Get out there and protest'
In introducing the disability benefits increase, de Jong downplayed its size without disclosing all the catches. "I don't think this makes life easier for people with disabilities -- hopefully it makes it a little less hard," he said.
"Seventy-seven dollars in today's world is a pretty modest amount of money, which is why I'm not trying to overestimate it," de Jong added, presumably referring to the amount of rate increase that the roughly 47,000 people with disabilities who don't have transit or transportation assistance will receive.
Halarewich said "modest" is an understatement: "They haven't even come close to the rate of inflation... The BC Liberals keep saying there's no money, there's no money, but they keep spending it elsewhere."
The only slight, dim ray of hope remaining for people with disabilities is that the BC Liberals might examine disability benefit rates "further in the fiscal year," de Jong told me.
But Halarewich has another suggestion rather than waiting.
"I would say everybody get out there and protest in Christy Clark's riding -- people in wheelchairs, everyone," he said.
Abusing power by attacking people with disabilities should not be tolerated.