N.B. disability advocates disappointed by unaddressed reforms

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New Brunswick disability advocates disappointed by reforms
WATCH: New Brunswick is reforming its social assistance program. The changes could put more money in the pockets of people on social assistance and bring about some long-sought changes to the system. But one advocate says there was minimal consultation and one key element is missing. Nathalie Sturgeon reports – Sep 27, 2021

New Brunswick’s Department of Social Development has unveiled some social assistance reform but didn’t address one of the biggest priorities for advocates.

On Monday, Minister Bruce Fitch outlined plans to improve specific parts of the social assistance programs.

The province will no longer consider child support payments as a part of a household’s income. It will not see its assistance reduced if it also gets help from the Canada-New Brunswick Housing Benefit. Compensation as a result of a workplace injury will also no longer be considered as part of the household income.

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The province will now allow nurse practitioners to sign disability forms required by the government. The rates for social assistance will now match inflation. The reforms also provide a clearer and extended definition of the disability of being deaf.

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The amount of money a person can make has also increased to $500 without impacting assistance levels, and 50 cents for every other dollar worked.

It also eliminates the deduction of shelter, which means people using relatives or friends to house themselves won’t have their assistance impacted either.

However, advocates said these are positive reforms, but consultation has been minimal, and many of the key priorities and asks are left out.

Household income policy not eliminated

Ability New Brunswick executive director Haley Flaro said one of those was the elimination of the household income policy.

“We’ve been really disappointed in the lag and the lack of consultation yet,” she said in an interview Monday. “There are several recommendations that have been made by disability advocates that don’t appear yet. So we’re really hopeful there are going to be engagement and consultation over the next little while to look at things like the elimination of the household income policy for people with disabilities.”

The household income policy creates barriers for people with disabilities who wish to move in with their significant others or get married and combine assets.

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Those on assistance will have those resources clawed back or taken away entirely if they move in with another person.

“To be able to choose love and marriage,” Flaro said. “It’s just very counterintuitive to well-being and financial security.”

However, Flaro said organizations working together submitted a brief to the government in July with a full list of recommendations, several of which haven’t yet been met.

“We really wanted to see a revised application and eligibility process for those on disability that fit the modern social definition of disability. New Brunswick still uses a very archaic medical model of disability,” she said.

Flaro also wants to see increased payments to those with a disability, as many advocates say the current payments are nowhere near enough compared with a living average.

Feeling discriminated against

Flaro isn’t alone in her disappointment with the reforms.

Shelley Petit said there has been little consultation, and that is hindering meaningful reform.

“It would almost behoove them to start listening, and I don’t mean that as a threat but it kind of is, because we are gaining momentum across the country. There have been polls done and 89 per cent of Canadians agree that we deserve better,” she said in an interview Monday.

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Petitsaid conversations have to happen between policymakers and people living with disabilities and in places or through resources that accommodate their needs.

She, too, believes the household income policy should have been eliminated.

Fitch said it was not included in the reforms because of the complicated exemptions associated with the policy but will be addressed in later reforms. He did not say when that would be.

Kaitlyn Layden is affected by the policy.

“I’m engaged, and because of the household income policy, and because I have cerebral palsy and some other health issues, I cannot cohabitate with my partner. He is able-bodied, which is great,” she said.

Layden says the couple not being able to live together is unfair and believes she, like so many others in New Brunswick, is being discriminated against.

“I’m just asking not to be discriminated against for getting married,” she said.

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