Serious Problems Experienced by Diverse People with Disabilities: Western Canada

Executive Summary

This report presents the results of research conducted with people with disabilities living in Canada’s western provinces, i.e., British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. The primary purpose of this qualitative study is to obtain information from diverse people with disabilities about the kinds of serious problems they experienced in the last three years, the avenues they took to address these problems, and the outcome and effect on their lives.

In total, 30 people with disabilities living throughout Western Canada participated in this study through 25 interviews and one focus group for people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities. The outreach process achieved a diverse intersection of study participants living with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities. These included: women, men, a variety of ages, and racialized, immigrant, Indigenous, 2SLGBTQ+, and low- to middle-income people. Compared with the general population, there was an intentional over-representation of marginalized populations, i.e., women, Indigenous, racialized, immigrant, and 2SLGBTQ+ peoples. People living with intellectual, cognitive, and/or mental health disabilities were also over-represented in this study given their experiences of acute marginalization.

The findings illustrate that people with disabilities experience serious problems when they attempt to access the basic things all of us strive for to live a safe, secure, and meaningful life, i.e., earning a decent income, living in a safe place, raising our own children, and being free from violence. Problems experienced were categorized as follows:

  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 legal authorities managing trust funds.

Regardless of the problem, participants described experiencing discriminatory, rude, and dismissive treatment, with the majority not challenging this mistreatment. People felt forced to comply with discriminatory systems for fear of, for example, not receiving the disability income support they need or losing their job. The majority of research participants described feeling that their adversaries lacked an understanding of their disability, did not see them as credible, and felt that they were being exploited and/or taken advantage of due to their disability. A significant number indicated that they were denied the disability accommodation that they sought and many people were reluctant to disclose their disability for fear of, for example, being disqualified for an insurance claim.

Research participants attempted to resolve their problems by:

  1. Dealing directly with the organization where the problem occurred;
  2. Contacting law enforcement;
  3. Contacting their union;
  4. Engaging third-party support;
  5. Filing a human rights complaint; and
  6. Pursuing legal action.

When participants attempted to resolve their problems, they experienced the same negative treatment as they had during their problems, i.e., discriminatory treatment, not being believed or seen as credible by, for example, law enforcement or in the courts. There was also a demonstrated lack of understanding of their disability and consequent denial of the disability supports they needed to take action. For example, preparing for a court case or filing an insurance claim required them to compile extensive paperwork – a task that is often difficult for people with cognitive, intellectual, and some mental health disabilities.

There was a notable difference in experiences for people with disabilities who were also Indigenous, racialized, immigrant, women, and/or those who belong to a 2SLGBTQ+ community. Racism was identified as the core problem for Indigenous and racialized people with disabilities when dealing with law enforcement and child welfare, and in the workplace.

Women with disabilities shared their feelings of powerlessness when dealing with their male, non-disabled ex-spouses in child custody cases and with male landlords. People from the 2SLGBTQ+ communities with disabilities often questioned whether their queer identity intensified the problems that they were experiencing. A significant finding was that people with invisible disabilities, i.e., chronic fatigue syndrome, brain injury, and intellectual or mental health disabilities, frequently identified feeling less credible, their disability not being understood, and being denied the disability supports they needed.

Research participants identified poverty as the root of their problems. This meant they did not have the financial resources needed to resolve their problems in court. Participants indicated that because they were poor, they were segregated from mainstream society, resulting in discriminatory treatment and not being understood. This was intensified for people with disabilities with intersecting layers of marginality. Research findings also highlight that the segregation of people with disabilities has resulted in systems and practices that do not respond to their needs, placing them in conditions where they are vulnerable to exploitation and violence.

Research findings support the fact that the COVID-19 crisis is having the greatest effect on the poorest and most marginalized populations in Canada, i.e., people with disabilities.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, study participants indicated:

Participants also stated that the pandemic underlined their sense of not being valued in society, as they witnessed governments swiftly put in place income- and employment-related supports for non-disabled people – the kinds of supports that people with disabilities have been asking for decades.

This report concludes with some key areas for policy reform highlighted by the results of this research: