The Higgs government continues to sit atop hefty budget surpluses that have failed to reach those in need, including women, rural communities, Francophones, racialized peoples, and disabled New Brunswickers.
For Kelsi Evans, a recent graduate from the University of New Brunswick, current standards in disability policy don’t “offer a smooth or adequate transition” to those newly experiencing disability. Last year, Evans woke up with “bursting tinnitus” in her left ear. “I was confused because I couldn’t hear my alarm,” she explained.
With the province’s healthcare gutted, it took Evans three months to receive proper care. Had she received immediate attention, a greater portion of her hearing could have been saved.
Evans was soon faced with the challenge of attending university without assistance from the federal and provincial governments. “I didn’t have time to learn sign language. I didn’t have time to get set-up with hearing aids. I lived eight months, the entire school year, 71 percent deaf.”
“My hearing aids cost me nearly $3,000 out of pocket,” she said. “I got a tiny bit from [private] insurance,” but it amounted to only $200.
Issues surrounding disability are compounded by the challenges faced by those experiencing mental illness. Another UNB student, a woman named Julia Chebott, has faced repeated instances of neglect while seeking help for her mental illness. “It’s so hard to even get an appointment with the psychiatrist,” she explained. “I haven’t had great experiences with counsellors at UNB, and our last psychiatrist was [an alleged] sexual predator.”
Chebott has a registered learning disability. For her, private mental health care exacerbates existing inequalities and diminishes quality of care. “Our health care and mental health care systems are not adequate at all. Having to pay to see a therapist is absurd,” she said. “Even with student health insurance, my medications cost me around $50 every month, and therapy is around $150 a session.”
One night, during a mental health crisis, Chebott brought herself to Fredericton’s regional hospital, hoping to receive medical care. “They sat me in the waiting room all night, for nearly eight hours, by myself. I was mentally unstable and had no supervision,” she explained. “In the morning, they sent me home and told me to call Student Health Services at UNB.”
Poor quality of care has made Chebott wary of seeking out the province’s mental health services. “If I was in that situation again, I would not go back to the hospital. It was such an awful experience.”
Disabled New Brunswickers continue to receive little in the way of adequate social assistance. In 2020, according to the Maytree Foundation, the average annual income of an unattached and single disabled person in New Brunswick was equal to $10,411. Current provincial disability benefits, in comparison, fall between $726 and $832 per month. For reference, according to data published by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, in 2021, a two-bedroom apartment in New Brunswick costed renters an average of $893 per month.
According to the New Brunswick Common Front for Social Justice, while relying on social assistance, “single people living with severe disabilities in New Brunswick are not able to meet all their basic needs.”
Unintended or not, for Finance Minister Ernie Steeves, these gaps in social policy represent necessary steps in the Higgs government’s quest “to get our province’s financial health in order.”
For much of modern history, frameworks that guide Canadian disability policy have overwhelmingly favoured theories of personal tragedy, medicalization, and individualism. Personal tragedy assumes that instances of impairment and disability are, in essence, tragic circumstances that the individual must overcome if they wish to readjust themselves to daily life. Thus, in the words of disability theorist Michael Oliver, disabled people are cast, not as human, but as either “pathetic victims of some appalling tragedy or as superheroes struggling to overcome a tremendous burden.”
For Oliver, the rise of capitalism facilitated an ideologically useful growth in the theory of individualism, reducing the responsibilities of government while placing the blame on disabled people themselves. Highly specialized forms of labour, by pushing disabled people out of the workforce, created surplus populations who were either imprisoned, pushed to the margins of society, or left to medical institutions.
“That disability has become medicalized,” writes Oliver, “there can be no doubt.” In many instances, medicine and assistive technologies greatly aid those with disabilities. However, according to Oliver, doctors are also responsible for “determining the allocation of financial benefits, selecting educational provision and measuring work capabilities and potential.”
“In none of these cases is it immediately obvious that medical training and qualifications make doctors the most appropriate persons to be so involved,” he adds.
In theory, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has committed itself to enacting a “social model of disability.” According to the Liberal Party’s website, by focusing on “poverty reduction” and “removing barriers and addressing disability discrimination and exclusion in our systems and processes,” Trudeau’s government hopes to move “away from the medical and charity models” of disability.
However, on the ground, decades of neoliberal governance have destroyed existing social benefits, health care, labour standards, and human rights protections. In truth, theories of personal tragedy, medicalization, and individualism continue to haunt our political, economic, and social systems.
According to Chebott, “disability is very rarely defined by the people who live with disabilities. It’s defined by other people — healthcare professionals and institutions.”
For Evans, the only thing tragic about her disability is the lack of support. “It’s tragic because of how much you have to adjust. There’s no help in terms of the adjustment,” she said. “I have tried to apply for disability funding, and it hasn’t been approved. There’s been no movement.”
Still, for Evans, many of her expenses extended beyond the economic. “I had to move home, since I almost needed a caretaker,” she explained. “It wasn’t exactly an [economic] expense. It was a different kind of expense, a social expense.”
Instead, Evans suggests fundamentally altering the ways in which our provincial and federal governments allocate resources. “The government should be providing resources for assistive technology and [developing] a more accommodating system rather than just funding the individual,” she explained. “We need to be funding [people] with all of the appropriate resources that our science and technology [has to offer].”
Chebott agrees. “For me, disability isn’t just a physical or mental condition itself, but more so the circumstances around that condition, circumstances that are disabling.”
“We need to reframe disability and how we think about disability,” she added. “Right now, we see these services as superfluous. They should be seen as the bare minimum. The root of the problem is being ignored.”
Humane responses to disability in Canada require radical reorganizations of the way we distribute economic and social resources. Human life needs to be prioritized and the incentives of private profit deemphasized.
Only once work and labour are made accessible, comfortable and fulfilling existences made universal, and oppressive and disabling social forces made non-existent, will a true social model of disability have been implemented.