Osgoode Hall Law School workshop takes an in-depth look at proposed federal benefit for Canadians with Disabilities

Jinyan Li and Hengameh Saberi

What could be Canada’s newest social program came under the microscope recently at an Osgoode Hall Law School workshop examining the proposed Canada Disability Benefit (CDB).

The event brought together experts in economics, social policy, law and tax with advocates for the rights of people with disabilities.

“This will be a huge program, so it’s important to hear from people with different perspectives,” said Osgoode Professor Jinyan Li, an expert in tax law. “A lively, open-minded exchange of ideas remains critical.”

Bill C-22, the Canada Disability Benefit Act, is currently at the committee stage after receiving unanimous support following second reading in the House of Commons. The proposed benefit is intended to reduce the higher-than-average poverty rate among working-age Canadians with disabilities.

“I don’t think these different dimensions of the issue had come into conversation with each other before, and I hope everyone went back reassessing their views,” said Osgoode Professor Hengameh Saberi, the director of the Institute for Feminist Legal Studies at Osgoode.

The Workshop, titled Women with Disabilities: Income Security and Tax Policy, was sponsored by the Institute for Feminist Legal Studies and funded in part by a Connection Grant from the Ottawa-based Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. It featured panel discussions on poverty and women with disabilities, the expectations, goals and costing of the Canada Disability Benefit, and how the new program should be designed – especially in light of lessons learned from other social programs, including  Old Age Security/Guaranteed Income Supplement (OAS/GIS), the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), and the new Quebec Basic Income Program.

The keynote speakers were Senator Brent Cotter, who will sponsor the bill when it reaches the Senate, and NDP MP Bonita Zarrillo, the party’s disability inclusion critic.

Saberi said advocates for people with disabilities have pushed hard for a dedicated national disability benefit, which already exists in some other Western, industrialized countries. But she said little thought has been given to the program’s potential impact for the disabled community and its status in society.

“Is this essential to the well-being and empowerment of people with disabilities?” she asked. “I’m not sure if the long-term consequences of this have been well thought out.”

Li said she left the workshop convinced that the current plan to combine the Canada Disability Benefit with existing provincial disability benefit programs is a significant problem. Provincial disability benefits vary from province to province, she noted, and letting provinces play a leading role in the new program will require the federal government to negotiate agreements with each province and territory – an often lengthy process. Li said the disability community may be better served with a program that is led by the federal government.

Instead of the current plan to base the design of the disability benefit on the GIS, Li said that the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) would be a much better model.  Specific design issues about eligibility and the amount of the benefit could be resolved through consultation and collaboration with the disability community, she added.

While waiting for the final design of the new benefit, she suggested that the current Disability Tax Credit could be changed to a refundable tax credit to provide rapid support to Canadians with disabilities.