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A New Era of Insecurity

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Barry Murdoch was born in Vancouver, and now lives with family in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.

The British Columbia (BC) Liberal Government is unleashing significant changes to provincial legislation which is detrimental to the well-being of many disabled citizens. The BC Benefits Act has been repealed and replaced by the new Employment and Assistance for Persons with Disabilities (EAPD) Act. In addition, poverty law services, usually provided by the Legal Aid Society and the BC Human Rights Commission, have been eliminated.

On September 30 2002 the BC Government passed the new EAPD Act. Margaret Birrel, Executive Director of the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities (BCCPD), writes, "The Coalition mounted a province-wide campaign to try to stop the repeal of the Disability Benefits Program Act and the introduction of the new definition for disability contained in the (EAPD) Act. We had over 450 groups join our campaign (later over 350) in a campaign to try to stop the proclaimation of the new Act. We were obviously unsuccessful. The government would not be dissuaded from their cost-cutting agenda."

Under the repealed BC Benefits legislation, Disability Level 2 (DB 2) was the designation assigned to those with a permanent disability. "Person With a Disability" (PWD) is the new term, and the word "permanent" has been written out of the new EAPD legislation. Under the new act PWD's are subject to periodic disability designation reassessments (Are you still disabled and in need?).

The BC Ministry of Human Resources budget is being slashed by at least hundreds of millions of dollars. Much of the spending cuts will be achieved by reducing the numbers of people currently holding disability status. PWD status will now only be granted to those who are "significantly" restricted in their daily living activities and require "significant" assistance from another person, service animal or assistive device. Daily living activities include personal care, basic housekeeping and shopping. Old measures of disability--such as the time required to complete a task, and the associated pain, fatigue and difficulties--are no longer adequate determinents for status.

A New Definition of Disability

Last year on November 7 2001, the BC Minister of Human Resources, Murray Coell, made a presentation on upcoming cuts to welfare. During that meeting the Minister of State for Mental Health, Dr. G. Cheema, said, "In the case of a person with depression or schizophrenia who has not been able to work for a number of years, if we push them, they will end up going to the hospital and then costing us more." Coell responded, "Yeah. I'll make sure that I work with you on those definitions as we get closer to implementation."

Tragedy Takes a 23 Page Form

The 23 page, three-part functional reassessment form arrived in 19,000 DB 2 clients' mailboxes on October 5 2002. Doctors and advocates have described it as the most complicated and time intensive assessment form they have ever encountered.

The anxiety, despair and pressure felt by the disabled, since receiving their reassessment notices, have led to enormous stress and, sadly yet predictably, some breakdowns and a number of alleged suicides. BCCPD's Margaret Birrell says, "I've been here 16 years and I had one suicide, and it wasn't connected to a form or anything. It was a personal thing. (Now) I think we're hearing one a day."

Economic / Management Consultant, David Schreck, writes, "On November 21, 2002, just a day before the staged cabinet meeting, Coell's Ministry issued a "fact sheet" on changes to its "persons with disabilities review"." After aggressively pursuing 19,000 people on disability benefits with a lengthy form that is alleged to have caused breakdowns--just like Cheema predicted--Coell announced in his fact sheet that the Ministry was finally going to exempt 5,000 people with mental illness from the review. They did that just hours before the BCCPD was to disclose more information on suicides. Government didn't issue a news release or answer questions in question period on November 21. It didn't apologize for what it did to people, and it didn't put the policy on its staged cabinet agenda to review what happened in the year between Cheema's warning and his government's admission of failure. No one should thank Cheema for the change. That credit goes to Margaret Birrell of the BCCPD and the other organizations who worked together. 14,000 people are still being "reviewed".

Consequences Of Losing PWD Status

People with disability status who are disqualified under the new definition will have their monthly income support drastically reduced--down to only $608 or even $510 a month for all shelter, food and living costs. Many will lose basic dental care, extended medical and prescription drug coverage. With income slashed by one third, many will have no choice but to try to find cheaper accommodations. If they can find lowest cost housing, they may face unhealthy or unsafe surroundings. Some people will end up among the increasing number of homeless on our streets. People in despair will become sicker, require hospitalization and become additional suicide statistics linked to the New Era .

BC Legal Aid Services

As a result of this year's BC Government cutbacks, the Legal Aid Society has been forced to discontinue providing legal service to as many as 40,000 people and has replaced its 60 offices throughout BC with a new service delivery structure, eliminating about 74% of staff positions. The new service delivery model consists of 7 regional centres, a province-wide call centre and 24 local agents. The Legal Aid Society is no longer able to provide legal advice, assistance or representation on any poverty law matter, including Workers' Compensation, CPP Disability, EAPD, Employment Insurance or landlord-tenant disputes. The elimination of poverty law support will result in people losing disability benefits, income assistance and pension appeals.

BC Human Rights Commission

Acting chief commissioner, Harinder Mahil, was fired from the Human Rights Commission just before the BC Government introduced legislation to eliminate the body. The Commission was responsible for investigating human rights complaints, offering legal assistance, addressing systemic discrimination and providing public education and advocacy. Of the 814 new complaints in the past fiscal year, 34 per cent were launched by people with disabilities. Margaret Birrell of the BCCPD says the government move is "a definite attack on the disability community." She says it will have a very negative impact on the disabled "because this is where people go when there is no other recourse." She further states, "In the last few years disability has been the highest number of cases that the commission has handled."

As Canada has been at the forefront of establishing internationally recognized principles to be used by human rights commissions around the world, Keith Norton, the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, predicts that British Columbia's actions will be a major cause for embarrassment.