moved that Bill C-348, An Act to amend the Department of Employment and Social Development Act (persons with disabilities), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, with pride for my riding of Windsor—Tecumseh, I rise today to speak to my first private member's bill during its second reading in this honourable chamber.
This bill was inspired by the earnest and thoughtful conversations and consultations I have had with people who are civic-minded, practical, and hopeful. Many constituents have brought to my attention the onerous processes involved in applying for federal and provincial programs for persons living with disabilities. Canadians living with disabilities have to apply for each program separately, and they have to demonstrate their disability every single time. It is curious, even disconcerting, to realize that our governments impose this kind of cumbersome process on some of our most vulnerable citizens. It has me thinking again about fairness and efficiency.
Consider further that the processes by which this community interfaces with government agencies to access these programs is so unwieldy that some individuals, when they can manage to afford it, are forced to hire legal representation to help them navigate the labyrinth of programs. To better understand how punitive this feels for people in this situation, it is necessary to look at poverty rates among persons living with disabilities, so let us do that.
According to Statistics Canada, more than 5.3 million Canadians, almost 16% of the population of this country, are living with some form of disability that affects their level of freedom, independence, or quality of life. Of that number, over 200,000 are children and youth, according to Easter Seals Canada. The overall poverty rate for Canadian adults was 10.5% in 2006, which comprised 2.6 million people. However, for people with disabilities, the poverty rate was 14.4%, which comprised nearly 600,000 people.
There is also a real wage gap. According to a 2012 Canadian Human Rights Commission report, men living with disabilities in the 15 to 64 age group earned $9,557 less than adult males in the same age group who do not live with disabilities.
The picture is even more bleak for women. According to the DisAbled Women's Network, also known as DAWN, 58% of women with disabilities live on less than $10,000 per year, and of those, 23% live on less than $5,000 per year. Accessible cribs, accessible and affordable child care, and other services for mothers with disabilities are virtually non-existent.
As members of Parliament who serve all Canadians, we have serious work to do to address the very challenging issues that cause severe hardships that are faced every single day. I have not lost sight of that in discussing this modest bill today.
Disability is expensive. A customized powered wheelchair can cost more than $25,000. Again, this information is from Easter Seals Canada. A porch lift can cost upwards of $5,000. A specially designed walker can cost $2,500. Modifications and renovations to make a home accessible can cost tens of thousands of dollars. For a family, it can cost more than $40,000 a year to care for a child with a severe disability, yet some of these families have a total income of barely that much, which brings me back to my earlier point.
Some persons living with disabilities find themselves having to hire lawyers to assist them in navigating the complex web of programs available to them from the various levels of government. To me, this is just unacceptable. I see this bill as starting new momentum. When doctors undertake due diligence in completing evaluations on behalf of their patients so they can receive modest assistance, does it not make sense that this form be acceptable to apply to all programs available to the patient, instead of their having to start over again each time? We have to be smarter.
I am confident that as Canadians, we really do not want to force this vulnerable population into spending the scarce resources at their disposal to access programs that exist to provide them with assistance that is, rightfully, there for them.
I would now like to quote one of my constituents, Debra Sandre, who was able to provide me with a very candid overview of her lived experience.
She said, “I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in February of 2014 at the age of 30. Getting a diagnosis like that is hard, stressful, scary and many other adjectives, especially at this age.
“When trying to work out treatment, doctor's visits with specialists and all the other things to adjust to the new reality of living with a permanent disability it can be very difficult to figure out what resources may be available to you. Once you figure out what services and government assistance you may be entitled to, you then have to apply or prove your disability over and over again. And while proving this over and over you also have to incur the cost of having your doctor fill out the paperwork. This process can and should be easier for people who need the services, and we definitely do not need the added stress of applying for them.”
I really appreciate Debra allowing me to quote her here. I have to say that I could not agree with her more.
When a person attempts to access a benefit for the first time, the quality of that experience, whether it be onerous, overly complicated, or easy and efficient, defines the government for them. As far as they are concerned, it is the government, because these services are the interface between the service provider and the person assessing them. Therefore, those of us in government really need to think about the nature of that experience. We need to always be cognizant of how the delivery of these services is experienced by the people who need them.
Fortunately, for our purposes here today, the improvement of the quality of government services delivery falls within the mandates of two ministers in charge of such things.
In the mandate letter for the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, we find this:
Work with the Minister of Public Services and Procurement to set transparent service standards so that Canadians get timely access to the benefits to which they are entitled.
In the mandate letter for the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, it says:
Work with the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, who is responsible for Service Canada, to establish new performance standards and set up a mechanism to conduct rigorous assessments of the performance of key government services and report findings publicly.
Bill C-348 deals with what many would call the low-hanging fruit, the first and simplest issues to be dealt with by a government interested in improving the way it delivers important services to its citizens. This bill has the potential to set a new course in how we manage our bureaucracy in a manner that would be a sensible way to make a difference in people's lives.
I am well aware that private member's bills rarely make it into law, which is why I am determined to propose something modest and achievable.
This bears reiterating: currently, people must apply separately to each program and have to endure the ordeal of proving their disabilities each time. Bill C-348 would create a once-stop shop, so to speak, a streamlined approach that would allow individuals to apply for all federal programs at once: the Canada pension plan disability benefit; the disability tax credit; the registered disability savings plan; veterans disability pensions, where applicable, of course; and the opportunities fund. All operate as stand-alone programs with distinct and separate application processes.
This really makes it cumbersome for people living with disabilities to access the federal supports they may be entitled to. We want to try to fix this problem, to the extent we are able, while operating within the constraints of private members' legislation.
Members will note that incorporated in this bill is its own internal review mechanism, which is in keeping with the mandate letters I quoted from earlier. Here is what the bill stipulates in proposed subsection 8.1(1):
Within 18 months after the day on which this section comes into force and every two years after that, the Minister shall undertake a review of the effectiveness of the application process provided for under paragraph 8(2)(b) and prepare a report setting out his or her findings and recommendations.
We all want to make sure that legislation actually works. In this case, we want to know that it genuinely makes the application process simpler for persons living with disabilities. We need to analyze its strengths and challenges and seize the opportunities and synergies that would become apparent when applying this practical directive. This would allow for the valuable input of our public service, which has the expertise and insight to respond to this directive.
Those following this issue will know that having in place a monitoring mechanism to ensure that the government's accessibility legislation was being implemented as to its intended capabilities was a major part of what Canadians told the government during its consultations over this past year.
I envision a time when we will have more streamlined access and coordination with provinces so that when a person is deemed eligible for one disability program, it opens access to another: gateways, not hurdles; bridges, not silos. Our real job here in this place is to continually move forward to remove the barriers to participation in a quality life. This would be the first step in a real opportunity to set the tone, the new approach, that would be a springboard for further discussion and action at all levels of government.
The internal review would ensure that we engage meaningfully to maximize our resources and enrich the Canadian experience in this modest way. I am sure now that those listening are contemplating the potential reach of this type of bureaucratic direction and what implications this could very well have. I certainly welcome the gained momentum that persons living with disabilities, and their families, are eagerly awaiting from this government.
As I have already mentioned, this is the low-hanging fruit, a no-brainer, so to speak. Let us go ahead and deal with these issues right away, the better to then address the more complex barriers facing persons living with disabilities in Canada. I extend my hand across the aisle to work together to do this, because this is what we are compelled to do in this place.