Serious Problems Experienced by Diverse People with Disabilities: Western Canada


Observations: Problems Experienced and Resolution Strategies

The findings illustrate that diverse people with disabilities can experience serious problems when they attempt to access the basic things all of us need to live a safe, stable, and meaningful life, i.e., earn a decent income, pursue education, secure a respectable place to live, raise our own children, be free from violence, and stay healthy. This is evident by the types of serious problems people with disabilities have experienced:

  1. Employment related;
  2. Problems when trying to access health, social, and educational services;
  3. Lack of access to disability and income supports;
  4. Child custody issues;
  5. Problems with insurance companies;
  6. Issues with landlords;
  7. Experiences of violence; and
  8. Problems with people who have legal authority to manage trust funds.

Each of these types of problems shared similar characteristics that were more often than not related to a person’s disability. That is, whether participants discussed problems related to accessing services, child custody, or dealing with insurance companies, they consistently identified the following seven types of experiences:

  1. Discriminatory, rude, and dismissive treatment;
  2. A demonstrated lack of understanding of a person’s disability;
  3. Resistance or denial of disability supports needed;
  4. People being perceived as an easy target for exploitation;
  5. People complying with discriminatory processes because they feared the consequences of non-compliance;
  6. Fear of disclosing one’s disability; and
  7. Not seen as credible and/or not being believed.

Also important to note is the relationship or interplay of these characteristics in escalating the severity of a problem. For example, in cases of people experiencing issues at their place of employment, the scenario often unfolded as follows:

Figure 1: Flow Chart

Figure 1: Flow Chart
Text version

The first box on the left says: “Employer does not understand the nature of their employee’s disability.” There are two arrows from this box.

The top arrow leads to a box that says: “Employer does not believe the supports are needed”; this box leads to another box that says: “Leads to denial of disability supports, i.e., time off or allowing employee to work from home.”

The bottom arrow leads to a box that says: “Employer thinks person is lazy and/or pretending, leading to discriminatory and rude treatment”; this box leads to another box that says: “Employee complies with demands due to fear of losing job.”

Both top and bottom boxes have arrows leading to another box that says: “Employee’s health declines and/or cannot keep up with work demands” which leads to a final box that says: “Serious Problem: Person’s job is terminated.”

In every problem shared, participants described being treated in discriminatory, rude, and dismissive ways. The vast majority (75 percent) also spoke about not challenging such mistreatment because they felt forced to comply with discriminatory systems for fear of, for example, not receiving the disability income support or insurance claim that they so desperately needed. Another significant finding was that the majority of research participants (63 percent), regardless of the type of problem experienced, described feeling that their adversary lacked an understanding of their disability, did not believe them or see them as credible, and felt that they were being exploited and/or taken advantage of due to their disability. Half of all research participants shared that they were denied the disability accommodation that they sought. Half also shared their unwillingness to disclose their disability for fear of not being able to, for example, retain their job or qualify for an insurance claim.

These same types of experiences occurred when participants sought to resolve their problems. For example, they experienced discriminatory treatment, were not believed, and their disability was not recognized when they reached out to law enforcement in times of crisis. Participants felt that they were not deemed credible when pursing legal action because of their disability. Related to this, there was also a demonstrated lack of understanding of a person’s disability from other legal services and consequent denial of the disability supports they needed to take legal action, for example.

Often procedures for addressing a problem were not accessible. For example, preparing for a court case or filing an insurance claim required people to compile and complete extensive paperwork – a task that is difficult for people with cognitive, intellectual, and some mental health disabilities. Whereas legal and human rights tribunal processes are time consuming and stressful for most people, for people with disabilities the stress appeared to be amplified because they faced many access barriers. The mental stress, negative treatment, and physical demands of challenging injustice often worsened their mental health disabilities and/or chronic health conditions.

Given that similar behaviours and circumstances that led to a problem (i.e., lack of understanding of the nature of a disability and thus having a disability accommodation denied) were also present in the context of problem resolution strategies, (i.e., courts not recognizing the supports needed for people with cognitive disabilities to achieve a fair trial) it is understandable that the vast majority of outcomes were unsuccessful.

Socio-demographic Observations

There were notable differences in the experiences for people with disabilities who were also Indigenous, racialized, immigrant, women, and/or who belong to a 2SLGBTQ+ community. Indigenous peoples often discussed the double, and in the case of Indigenous women, triple levels of discrimination they experienced when dealing with law enforcement, child welfare, and in the workplace – with racism identified as the core problem. Immigrants from non-European countries felt that because they have an accent and are racialized, they were treated more severely than a white person with or without a disability would have been – again identifying racism as the driving force of their mistreatment. Women with disabilities often cited a lack of power when dealing with their male ex-spouses in child custody cases and with male landlords. A few people from 2SLGBTQ+ communities wondered whether the discriminatory treatment that they received was intensified because they were openly queer-identified.

The findings also demonstrated distinct experiences by type of disability. A significant finding was that people with disabilities such as chronic fatigue syndrome, traumatic brain injury, ADHD+, and/or mental health disabilities, i.e., depression, anxiety, panic disorders, etc., often stated that the invisibility of their disability greatly exacerbated their problem. That is, people with invisible disabilities were more likely to not be believed and/or experience a lack of understanding of their disability and the related supports needed. People with invisible disabilities also had the choice to not disclose their disability, often leading to increased conflict.

The core of many of the problems experienced appeared to be a pronounced lack of understanding about how to support people living with mental health disabilities, for example, service providers acting aggressively rather than de-escalating interactions during a conflict or assuming people are being defiant rather than confused, agitated, or triggered. Further research to examine whether people with mental health disabilities experience more serious problems might be valuable, given that this group represented almost half of the study’s participants (45 percent).

The results of this study demonstrated that when people live with more than one marginalized social location, separate identities co-exist or are co-constituted in interlocking systems of discrimination. In the case of this study, outreach was directed to recruit people with disabilities. Therefore, research participants told the stories of their problems from the vantage point of their disability. However, in the telling of these stories, other experiences of discrimination emerged, which at times surpassed disability oppression (i.e., racism) and at other times coalesced (i.e., sexism and ableism). As a result, although it is important to understand the specificities of a particular system of marginalization (i.e., ableism), a deeper analysis seeks more comprehensive understandings of how these different systems of oppression interact.

Observations: Causes, Effect, and Outcome

The common characteristics that cut across all of the different types of problems experienced by participants originate in what the majority of research participants identified as the root of their problems – poverty. Participants were clear that if they had the financial resources, they would have been successful in resolving their legal problems. Also, people with disabilities continue to be segregated from mainstream society. This isolation is highlighted by the many reports of peoples’ disability-related needs not being understood. Segregation and isolation is closely related to poverty. When people are poor, they are often segregated from mainstream society, making them more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Poverty also limits access to the things needed to live a good life, i.e., housing, education, and appropriate health care for people with disabilities.

Research continues to demonstrate that people with disabilities experience some of the highest rates of poverty in Canada.4 People with disabilities are also represented in all other marginalized groups, i.e., women, Indigenous, racialized, migrants, etc., who also experience high poverty rates. Thus, with each intersecting layer of marginality, people with disabilities experience an intensified vulnerability to their economic security, health, and safety.

Participants also felt that the “system,” or policies and practices in society, lacked an understanding of the disability-related barriers they experience and thus their respective needs. They were more likely to experience multiple problems when attempting to participate in daily life. For example, one person had a panic attack that barred them from receiving a needed healthcare service. As a result of not receiving this health service, coupled with continual panic attacks at work, the person lost their job. Participants were well aware that the “systems” were not built with their needs in mind, as demonstrated by their fears of disclosing their disabilities, feeling like they had to comply with discriminatory processes, and deciding not to take any route to resolve their problems because they felt that they would be unsuccessful.

Research participants also identified that many of their problems occurred because they believe that people with disabilities are not valued in society. Further, they felt that this sense of not being valued in society is being highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, where income and employment-related supports were quickly put in place for non-disabled people, the very kinds of supports that people with disabilities have been asking for unsuccessfully for decades.5

It is evident that there is a complex and interlocking relationship between the causes of most people’s problems, e.g., poverty leads to segregation, and if people are segregated, they are less likely to be “known” and valued and thus their needs are not responded to.

Lastly, the research findings on the effect that participants’ problems have had on their lives, i.e., deteriorating mental health – not obtaining the supports needed to be safe, healthy, and productive, and significant financial loss – highlight the systemic nature of marginalization, which continues to keep diverse people with disabilities poor, unhealthy, and unsafe.


4 Canadians aged 25 to 64: 23 percent of people with disabilities were living in low income, compared with nine percent of non-disabled populations. For people with mental disabilities these rates are even higher: 17 percent for those with a physical/sensory disability compared with 27 percent for those with a mental/cognitive disability, were living in low income. Source: Cotter, A. (2018, March 15). Violent victimization of women with Disabilities. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. Statistics Canada. Catalogue no. 85-002-X. ISSN 1209-6393. page 3.

5 This research was conducted during the beginning of the pandemic in March–April 2020. In June 2020, the federal government announced a series of measures to support Canadians with disabilities, including a one-time, tax-free, non-reportable payment of $600 to assist with additional expenses due to the pandemic, i.e., additional expenses related to hiring personal support workers, paying for increased costs for medical supplies and medication, and home delivery services to obtain groceries and prescriptions. In July 2020, the federal government proposed expanding the one-time payment to include approximately 1.7 million Canadians with disabilities. Source: COVID & Disability, Inclusion Canada. Retrieved 28 November 2020 from: