Serious Problems Experienced by People with Disabilities Living in Atlantic Canada

Discussion and Conclusion

The people with disabilities who participated in this study experienced similar types of problems that were largely related to, or intensified, because of their disability. Public places, indoor and outdoor, lacked some of the most basic disability accommodations, which would ensure people’s access and safety so they could use the services and spaces that are available to all citizens. Transportation, for example, is key to people’s participation in the life of their community, yet research participants identified many barriers to accessing the transportation services that they need to assist them with daily living.

The results of this research also demonstrate that poverty and disability are mutually reinforcing experiences that hinder people with disabilities’ ability to get an education and retain employment, which forces them to live in inadequate, unhealthy, and unsafe housing conditions. When people with disabilities attempt to get the supports that they need to live a safe and healthy life, they are met with discriminatory and dismissive treatment from health care professionals. They also experience difficulties in accessing wholly inadequate income supports, which adhere to “cookie cutter” criteria that fail to meet the individualized needs of diverse people with disabilities.

Further, when the participants in this study attempted to address the problems that they experienced, they were met with discriminatory, dismissive treatment, and their lack of financial resources resulted in most efforts, particularly legal ventures, ending in failure. For example, the majority of respondents were unsuccessful despite the steps they took to request the accommodations that they needed. In addition, in many cases, respondents shared how they brought complaints forward to their local municipalities, disability organizations, employers, and educational facilities, yet most complaint efforts resulted in no resolution.

It is understandable that people with disabilities face such a profound negative impact on their psychosocial and physical health because of the problems experienced and made worse by their failed attempts at resolution. The stresses on their finances and significant relationships intensifies people with disabilities’ feelings of exclusion and negative self-worth.

What, then, do the research findings tell us about potential solutions to address the discrimination, lack of understanding of disability support needs, and pronounced poverty that people with disabilities experience in Canada? The answers may be explored through legislative reform, accessible information on services and increased self-advocacy skills, anti-ableism training, and a rights-based approach to disability supports.

Legislative Reform

The inaccessibility of the built environment was raised as a legal issue or serious problem by the majority of participants. Their comments revealed a host of physical barriers that directly interfered with the right of people with disabilities to participate fully and equally in society.

Addressing legal needs and serious problems like accessibility would benefit from legal tools, including legislation.

Canada 8 and three provinces (Ontario,9 Manitoba,10 and Nova Scotia11) have passed legislation that focuses on the rights of people with disabilities. The purpose of these acts is to identify and remove barriers by mandating a set of standards with which public, private, and non-profit organizations must comply. Nova Scotia’s law, for instance, seeks to promote accessibility by preventing and removing barriers in the following areas:

It is noteworthy that all of the accessibility issues raised by participants would fit on the list.

Accessible Information and Increased Self-Advocacy Skills

Accessibility legislation could contribute to improvements in the quality of life for people with disabilities, but those enactments would still require individuals to be familiar and comfortable with statutes and regulations. Participants interviewed for this project shared that they already struggled with navigating the current systems and trying to access existing rights and protections. Participants seeking a resolution of a legal or other serious problem found the experience to be frustrating and confusing. It was not always clear where they should go next or what options were available.

Therefore, better information about available services is needed. Navigating complex systems like health care or income supports was particularly daunting. Many gave up after their initial interactions failed to bring about a successful resolution of their problem.

In addition, many participants lacked a support system, i.e., friends, family members, or advocates. Those who self-advocated enjoyed modest success, but they were less likely to achieve a favourable outcome than those who had third-party representation. These findings suggest that people with disabilities need more opportunities to develop self-advocacy skills. The findings also support the case for increased capacity within existing disability organizations to offer greater representation and advocacy services.

Anti-ableism Training

People with disabilities encounter ableist attitudes in many sectors. Ableism was at the root of nearly all the perceived causes of the problems in people’s lives. Participants in this project found those attitudes prevalent in the health care system. It was mentioned frequently that participants felt that they were not being heard and that their concerns were dismissed by medical professionals. According to disabled patients, their time was rarely valued by medical professionals – the time it takes to find a doctor, schedule an appointment, wait for the appointment, and find transportation to and from appointments. The whole process was often dehumanizing and discouraging.

Training about ableism needs to be included in medical curricula and should be provided to all individuals in the medical field, including doctors, nurses, and therapists.

A Rights-based Approach to Disability Supports

Persons with disabilities have some of the lowest incomes in Canada. When individuals with disabilities also experience poverty, then multiple layers of discrimination can be identified. Disability and poverty reinforced each other, contributing to increased vulnerability, oppression, and exclusion.

Many problems identified by participants stemmed from inadequate incomes and supports. Access to safe and suitable housing and accessible transportation services require incomes above the poverty line.

Participants shared how poverty often leads to a life of “survival mode” where basic needs are unmet. They spoke about the high cost of living with their disability, from purchasing mobility aids, paying for specialized diets or needed medications to accessing uninsured medical services and therapies. These additional costs, combined with inadequate levels of income support, left many in dire financial circumstances.

Although several participants wanted to hire lawyers to represent them, the high cost of retaining counsel was an impenetrable barrier. The findings from the interviews confirmed that people with disabilities require enhanced income supports.

To address the systemic poverty that people with disabilities experience, it is imperative that Canada move from the current charity model to a rights-based approach to disability supports – the personal assistance, aids and devices, environmental accommodations, and medication supports that people with disabilities require. Although disability supports fall under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, the federal government could take leadership by creating a national legislative framework. That would be a welcome complement to the barriers removal provisions of the Accessible Canada Act.

People with disabilities are willing to get the education they need to engage in meaningful employment that will enable a poverty-free, safe, and healthy life. Legislative and policy reforms, fortified by on-the-ground supports to individuals and communities, will empower people with disabilities on their journey to full inclusion in Canadian society.


8 Accessible Canada Act (S.C. 2019, c. 10)

9 Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005, S.O. 2005, c. 11 [AODA]

10 The Accessibility for Manitobans Act, CCSM c A1.7

11 Accessibility Act, SNS 2017, c 2