10/23/2020 16:19 EDT | Updated 10/23/2020 16:21 EDT

Saskatchewan Politics Treat Disability As An Afterthought. This Election's No Different.

Provincial parties continue to ignore the barriers that we face before we even get into the voting booth.

Every time I step or wheel into a non-disabled space in Saskatchewan, it’s a battle. There are the traditional fighting grounds, of course — the doctor’s office, public transit, job interviews —  but ableism (discrimination based on ability) also exists in less visible ways here.

My province relies on a charity model of disability, socially and politically. I see it when passersby throw pocket change in a friend’s lap like they’re a cutesy sideshow. As far as I can tell, this is also the provincial government’s attitude towards people like me. We make up 20 per cent of the Canadian population, according to Statistics Canada’s 2017 Survey on Disability, but are not represented much politically outside of federal ministers like Carla Qualtrough

We are now on the eve of a provincial election where the incumbent conservatives are expected to win a landslide victory, and Saskatchewan’s disabled people are once again left out of the conversation.

Patrick Doyle / Reuters
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe claims to prioritize the needs of disabled people, but his party's actions say otherwise.

I wrote early on in the pandemic about how CERB payments mean clawbacks from the provincial government, but it goes deeper than that. Premier Scott Moe said (via Twitter) that “working to make Saskatchewan the best place in Canada for persons with a disability is part of our plan for a strong Saskatchewan.” This is only true if keeping Saskatchewan’s disabled people in abject poverty is part of that plan. The Saskatchewan Party will keep pointing prospective voters back to their disability strategy, but actions — or non-actions, to be more precise — speak louder than any press release.

For example, the $50 sent to those on the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability Program (SAID) earlier in the year for COVID relief came across as more of a slap in the face than a helping hand. Fifty dollars, to put it bluntly, is 10 very cheap catheters or one extra-large pizza.

“Enforced poverty,” to put it another way, is the policy of the day in Saskatchewan.

As Zak Vescera and Alex MacPherson reported for the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, the provincial government treats CERB as a replacement for employment income, despite the federal government urging provinces to allow CERB benefits to be in addition to existing programs. It is remarkably unsurprising that the province treats SAID as a troublesome handout in need of dismantling rather than a vital program in need of more support. “Enforced poverty,” to put it another way, is the policy of the day in Saskatchewan because the government can’t conceive of disabled people as anything other than workers who refuse to work.

Some disabled people are not capable of working, and those of us that are, like me, live in fear of our bodies surrendering and us living hand-to-mouth poor for the rest of our lives. Many complaints have been lodged about CERB not being enough for Canadians, but disabled Saskatchewanians are asked to live on less than $1,200 a month if they’re on SAID benefits. 

I dare the ministers in charge of the program to live on that, much less thrive. Would they have gotten where they are with a minimal chance of owning a home, living check to check, and being treated as a nuisance or a benefit cheat — a common critique of disabled people unable to get out from underneath the weight of a system that would rather they not exist? 

Spoiler alert: those ministers would die. Want proof? In that same 2017 Canadian survey, almost 30 per cent of disabled people in Canada reported being unable to afford their basic needs.

Saskatchewan New Democratic Party leader Ryan Meili, left, departing a polling station after voting in the advanced poll in Saskatoon, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.

On the other side of the aisle, the NDP platform leaves much to be desired when it comes to disability. Yes, NDP candidates like Aleana Young and Nicole Rancourt have rightly called out how insulting it is to deny SAID to disabled people on CERB and the lack of access to education that continues to plague my community, but the lack of any concrete disability policy on the NDP’s part is alarming. In fact, “disability” isn’t mentioned once on the NDP’s platform website, as far as I can tell. Between CBC and Global News’ roundups of major issues, disability was mentioned only once. Disabled people need more representation politically and in the media sphere if we hope to see change.  

The denial of supports for disabled people is not a uniquely Saskatchewan problem. Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party in Alberta untied AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped – yes, you haven’t just read your way into a time warp, that’s the real name) from inflation, and Ontario’s Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) is under severe stress from the Doug Ford government. The UCP called the $1,685 monthly AISH benefit “generous” in its most recent budget, though the amount barely exceeds Canada’s definition of a deep poverty line – 75 per cent below Canada’s median income of $61,400. In Saskatchewan, where the base amount is $1,064 a month before additional benefits, that puts a person almost $3,000 below the line. But sure, generous. 

Blair Gable / Reuters
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney recently decoupled some disability benefits from inflation.

Elections Saskatchewan regularly releases videos about making voting more accessible in the physical space. I was even in one of them. But provincial parties continue to ignore the barriers that disabled people face before we even get into the voting booth. I do not know of any expressly disabled candidates on the ballot, I have not heard of any town halls or election conversations happening that directly involve disabled people – COVID or not. 

How do we change a paradigm that sees few platforms aimed at helping disabled people, and even fewer politicians looking out for us? For one, the province needs to acknowledge that it relies on the charity model far too much, through programs like the annual TeleMiracle telethon, and invest into public services that allow for disabled people in our province to live rich and full lives without worrying about having a roof over their head, or where their next meal is going to come from. To do that, disabled people have to be understood as more than a cumbersome afterthought.

The prevailing thought in much of Saskatchewan is, and forgive my reclaimed language here, “If you have to be crippled can you at least be quiet?” No matter who wins the election, we need to change to a more inclusive and accessible model if we want to see the more just society that politicians claim to be moving towards.

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