Serious Problems Experienced by People with Disabilities Living in Atlantic Canada

Executive Summary

This research report examines the legal and other serious problems identified by 28 participants who live with disabilities in Atlantic Canada, with a focus on New Brunswick. The New Brunswick Disability Executive Network assisted with the recruitment of research participants. People with disabilities who participated in this research were asked a series of questions related to the types of legal issues or other serious problems that they may have encountered over the past three years. They were asked what actions they took to try and resolve the problems they experienced and to describe the outcomes of those efforts. Participants were also asked about the impact that these problems, and the efforts they took to resolve them, had on their lives.

The overwhelming majority of respondents, who had a variety of disabilities, identified the poor accessibility of the public and private built environment – the human-made landscape, including buildings, houses, streets, parks, and public spaces – as the most serious problem they encountered. They reported on the impact of crumbling municipal infrastructure, weak adherence to the principles of universal design, inaccessible buildings, and limited transportation options. This common, cross-cutting theme kept respondents isolated and prevented many people with disabilities from accessing the services they need, like government services, health appointments, recreational activities, and convenient transportation options.

Other key problems experienced could be categorized under the following themes:

Miscellaneous problems identified included child custody issues, coping with consumer credit and collection agencies, and overcoming the barriers presented by a criminal record.

Efforts to resolve legal or other serious problems ranged widely, from informal complaints to landlords, government, and other authorities, to an organized campaign that included the use of social, electronic, and print media. Formal appeal mechanisms were engaged sparingly. Only eight percent of respondents used the courts or initiated appeal processes within government agencies or programs. Legal proceedings were pursued by a few respondents for child custody and insurance claims. Most respondents could not afford the cost of litigation.

It was evident that respondents who sought resolution of their serious problem found the experience to be as frustrating and confusing as the problems themselves. It was not always clear where a person should go next or what options were available to launch a complaint or seek support in rectifying a situation. Those with self-advocacy skills and/or those who were accompanied by a third-party support person were more successful in resolving their problems. Many respondents’ complaints were met with discriminatory, dismissive treatment, especially in their dealings with the healthcare and medical system.

The impact of attempting to resolve problems had a dire effect on people’s psychosocial and physical health, often articulated as feelings of emotional exhaustion. This was particularly evident in respondents’ quest to obtain safe and affordable housing. Respondents also spoke about the negative impact on their personal and family finances when they attempted to resolve their problems. For many research participants, the serious problems and attempts at resolution resulted in strained relationships with family and friends and an inability to participate fully in community life. A few respondents, however, reported positive feelings of empowerment that accompanied robust advocacy and social activism efforts.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented additional challenges and burdens for the people with disabilities who participated in this study. Although federal financial supports were introduced to replace or augment diminished employment income, many people with disabilities stated that they often failed to meet the eligibility requirement of a minimum threshold of earned income in the previous year. The costs of complying with strict public health protocols mounted while disability income supports stagnated. Accommodations were weakened in the wake of strict public health protocols. The reduction of homecare supports during prolonged periods of isolation affected peoples’ physical and mental health. Respondents indicated that at a time when they need more help to ensure safety and overcome isolation, fewer resources were available.

The results of this study have highlighted several measures that, if adopted, could reduce the serious problems people with disabilities experience and improve their chances of resolving them successfully:

Legislative Reform
Ottawa and three provinces (Nova Scotia is the only Atlantic province) have passed legislation that focuses specifically on the right 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. Given that the inaccessibility of the built environment was often raised as a serious problem that impeded people with disabilities’ right to participate fully and equally in their communities, the remaining Atlantic provinces should pass similar legislation.
Accessible Information and Increased Self-Advocacy Skills
Research participants identified many challenges in navigating current systems and enforcing existing rights and protections. Better information about available services is needed. Related to this, people with disabilities need more opportunities to develop self-advocacy skills.
Anti-ableism Training
The discriminatory and dismissive treatment research participants identified supports the need for training about ableism, particularly in the healthcare and medical sector.
A Rights-Based Approach to Disability Supports
Many problems identified by participants stemmed from inadequate incomes and supports. To address the systemic poverty that people with disabilities experience, a rights-based approach to disability is essential. If people with disabilities are to take their rightful place in Canadian society, the federal government should take leadership in creating a national framework for a rights-based approach to disability and disability supports.

This qualitative inquiry has highlighted the fact that people with disabilities are ready to obtain the skills, education, and employment they need to bring them out of poverty and participate more fully in society. Legislation, policy reforms, and individualized supports are needed to empower and enable people with disabilities to realize these goals.