Royal City resident Tom Page has firsthand knowledge about the financial struggles felt by people with disabilities.
Page, who collects a disability benefits of $906 a month, said some people on disability get just over $700 a month.
"I have fibromyalgia and severe osteoarthritis. I have also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, although I am stabilized. I am 75 per cent deaf in both ears. I have a knee that has been operated on three times. It is difficult to walk because all the cartilage is gone, and it is now a bone-on-bone situation," he said. "I was told by an orthopedic surgeon I would be in a wheelchair when I was 55. I am 59 and still walking. I consider myself ahead of the game."
Page has been on a disability pension for five years, having tried to work different jobs and to return to work various times through the years.
"I worked all my life prior to that," he said of his deteriorating health. "My main career, I was a computer systems analyst. I went into business. I had an Internet business. I had a consulting business."
Because of his health issues, Page is unable to do any work that is physical or stressful.
"I am struggling," he said. "I'd like to go back to work if I could find something suitable."
Before his health deteriorated, Page could run five miles a day, work out at the gym and participate in sports like swimming and squash.
"It's difficult for a person who has lived a comfortable middle-class life to not only be disabled, but impoverished," he said. "That's the situation."
Getting by each month is challenging for people on disability pensions, Page said.
"It's extremely difficult, even with the food bank," he said. "It is difficult to eat a healthy diet. The food bank usage has increased. The amount you can get has decreased."
Page recently joined about 35 members of ACORN in a protest outside the Ministry of Social Development office in New Westminster. The New Westminster-based chapter of ACORN Canada tackles issues such as the need for safe and healthy rental housing and the need for increases to disability benefit rates.
"The main message is the disability allowance needs to go up," said Page, who is the leader of the local chapter's Disability Rights Group. "The province's disability allowance is inadequate."
Page knows of a woman who has diabetes, a condition that prompted her doctor to recommend a specific diet. It's an impossible feat on her $100 monthly food budget.
"There are things people do go without - clothing items. In terms of food, fresh fruit and vegetables, vitamins and things that are needed to have good health," Page said. "Clothing is a luxury, but food is a necessity, and that is not even being met."
In addition to ACORN's Disability Rights Group, Page also sits on the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition.
"I find a lot of the people I am involved with have been struggling with poverty for most or all of their lives," he said. "They have adapted to it, but they are beaten down. I think it's important to give them a voice and be heard. The situation has become dire."
ACORN Canada is seeking an immediate increase in disability rates to $1,200 a month and a review of the amount of money that's needed for disabled people to meet the cost of living. It also wants the province to make the benefits accessible for disabled people by cutting bureaucratic red tape.
"We'd like to see an immediate increase to $1,200 and a study done to determine what is actually needed," Page said. "We have requested meetings and so far they have not been granted."
According to Page, the province last increased disability rates in 2007, when a $70-a-month increase was approved. Although rates haven't gone up in five years, he said the cost of food and other items continues to rise.
"It puts people in a bind. People are really, really hurting," he said. "There are about 100,000 people in this situation. It's a large group, and they are hurting."
The Ministry of Social Development defines a person with disabilities as someone with a physical or mental impairment who is significantly restricted in his or her ability to perform daily living activities either continuously or periodically for extended periods, thus requiring assistance with daily living activities. In addition to disability benefits, the ministry's website states persons with disabilities may be eligible to get additional supports such as medical coverage, low-cost annual bus passes and employment supports.
Moira Stilwell, B.C.'s minister of social development, was unavailable to speak to The Record but provided a statement about disability benefits.
"I understand that people living with a disability face unique, complex challenges. However, when setting assistance rates, governments are obligated to take a balanced approach between what is fair to individuals seeking assistance and what taxpayers can support," she said in an email to The Record. "On Oct. 1, we made some changes to our policies that will assist individuals with disabilities to lead more independent lives. Creating a better life for people with disabilities is about finding a balance between providing supports to take care of daily needs and finding ways to encourage the greatest level of independence possible. B.C. has a good record when it comes to support for people with disabilities and is home to some of the most comprehensive supports for people with disabilities in Canada. However, we also understand that there is always room for improvement."
In October, the province increased the earnings exemption from $500 to $800, meaning people are able to work part-time and make up to $800 a month without having any reductions to their disability benefits.
Page said he appreciates the increase in the earning exemption requirements in British Columbia, but he doesn't believe it applies to the vast majority of people requiring disability assistance.
"Fewer than 10 per cent of the people on disability are able to do any work at all," he said. "It's kind of an empty gesture."
The response from the community has been strong for ACORN's campaign, Page said.
"More and more people have been calling the ACORN office asking what they can do to help out the campaign," he said. "Disabled people have nothing to lose. It's hard to imagine falling further behind economically."
According to Page, the disability rate would almost need to be doubled to reach the poverty line of $22,000 a year for a single person in Canada.
While protesting at the New Westminster office on Oct. 24, the supervisor spoke to Page and accepted a letter, which she agreed to fax to the minister.
"We will be doing actions leading up to the next election," he said. "Our objective is to be heard, to be part of the provincial discourse."
Page said people on disabilities know there are a lot of important demands for government money in B.C.
"We want to make sure people are aware there are vulnerable people in need," he said. "Nobody chooses to be disabled. I certainly didn't."
Page said people collecting disability benefits include seniors and parents of young children, who are living in poverty.
Coun. Jaimie McEvoy, chair of the city's community and social issues committee, said the issue has been discussed in New Westminster. He said the reality is that being on disability often means poverty for people living in Canada.
"It hits families," he said. "If mom gets sick or dad gets sick, it affects the kids too."
The B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities formed a Disability Without Poverty Network, which has made recommendations for change aimed at ensuring people are not living in poverty. The group's key proposals are to increase the benefit for persons with disabilities to $1,200 per month, to index the benefit and to establish a shelter assistance program for people with disabilities.
The City of Port Alberni has passed a resolution endorsing the Disability Without Poverty Network's recommendations and informed B.C. municipalities of its decision. It forwarded a letter to Premier Christy Clark, stating that it supports increasing the benefits to $1,200 a month and indexing the benefits to keep pace with the rising cost of living.
"People with disability who depend on the PWD (persons with disabilities) benefit are living well below the poverty line," stated a letter to the premier. "It is hard enough to live with a disability without the additional burden of poverty."