‘I can’t afford a bus’: clawback of disability benefits sparks protest

B.C. residents with disabilities and their advocates turned out at the B.C. legislature again last week to let the province know they don’t plan to take changes to transit pass subsidies sitting down.

For the first time in nine years, the province boosted monthly disability payments of $906. Then it announced changes that mean 35,000 persons with disabilities who buy B.C. Transit passes will get only $25 of the $77 monthly boost come September.

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“[This] does not reflect my values or the values of any other decent person in this province,” Independent MLA Vicki Huntington told a gathering of about 100 people, saying the change will reduce people with disabilities to “sitting at home waiting for the bus to go by.”

It was the second protest of the changes in six weeks.

Karen Cherniche, 65, got to the protest from the far side of Esquimalt by stressing the battery of her scooter to the max.

“I can’t afford a bus,” she said, adding she’s been on disability pension since two major back surgeries in 1991 ended her working life as a legal stenographer.

The transit changes reflect what happens in the absence of specific anti-poverty legislation, said NDP MLA Michelle Mungall, who tabled the NDP’s Poverty Reduction and Economic Inclusion Act for the fifth time since 2011 last week.

“Had B.C. passed this bill already, it is highly unlikely that government would have suggested a bus pass clawback that increases bus pass fees for people with disabilities living in poverty,” Mungall told the legislature.

If passed, the act would cross ministries and mandate government to develop a poverty-reduction strategy within one year, she said.

Oak Bay-Gordon Head Green MLA Andrew Weaver also underscored that “B.C. is the only province without a poverty-reduction strategy,” and indicated he would support the NDP’s call.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development said “all but two provinces that have poverty-reduction plans have higher unemployment rates than B.C.,” adding that “having a formal poverty plan doesn’t guarantee success.”

Instead, B.C. concentrates on economic growth that creates secure jobs, targeting supports at those who need them, a spokesperson said.

Since the transit changes were announced in February, the Family Support Institute of B.C. has fielded “hundreds of calls” — a clear indication of how important the bus pass scheme is to people with disabilities, said executive director Angela Clancy. “People are living in poverty and they don’t have their needs met and now they’re angry because they’re being told ‘you just don’t understand’ — but they do understand.”

Michelle Stilwell, the minister of social development, said the changes were made to be fair to all 100,000 people receiving persons with disabilities assistance.

“Currently, about 45,000 people on disability assistance do not receive any transportation supports,” Stilwell said. “As of September, everyone on disability assistance will receive the same level of benefits.”

But the upshot is that people who live in communities with B.C. Transit will pay $52 per month, not $45 per year, for their passes. That reduces their $77 monthly increase to $25 while persons with disabilities who do not use transit, live where it is unavailable or take other means of transport receive the full $77.

B.C. is the only province that subsidizes bus passes to people on disability assistance, she said. The $52 monthly rate compares to $85 for regular adult monthly passes.

“We are investing an additional $170 million to make changes that correct an inequity in the system,” Stilwell said.

“Everyone receiving disability assistance will receive a rate increase and a transportation subsidy.”

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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