The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened lives for many people with disabilities, says a University of Guelph professor who hopes her new research report will push Ottawa and provincial governments to improve income and support policies.

The pandemic has disproportionately affected Canadians with disabilities, reduced access to services and supports, and widened systemic inequities, said Dr. Deborah Stienstra, a professor in the Department of Political Science and director of U of G’s Live Work Well Research Centre.

Stienstra shared details of the report on the COVID-19 impact and the effects of federal government measures in response to the pandemic during last month’s annual Disability and Work in Canada Conference. She also spoke to the Toronto Star about her findings.

December 3 marked the International Day of Persons with Disabilities under this year’s theme of “Fighting for Rights in the Post-COVID Era.” Approximately one in five Canadians live with disabilities, said Stienstra, who holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Families and Work.

deborah steinstra proiel shot with trees in the back ground
Dr. Deborah Stienstra

U of G researchers conducted the study to help Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) identify best practices and learn from the response to the pandemic.

They worked on the report in fall 2020 along with DAWN (DisAbled Women’s Network) Canada, based in Montreal. Researchers gathered data from five provinces and from international websites, analyzed policies, conducted interviews and focus groups, and identified themes by using intersectional analysis that accounts for disability, race, gender, income and other factors.

Many people with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic in three main ways, said Stienstra.

Seniors in long-term care homes were especially hard-hit during the pandemic. Less well-known is that most of them were living with disabilities and that many younger people with disabilities live in similar settings: “People with disabilities were invisible in this pandemic.”

Report calls for income supports, decision input from people with disabilities

Many people were also hampered by reductions in supports and services, including regular home care, wheelchair maintenance, day programs and access to mental health sessions. Early in the pandemic, support workers lacked adequate personal protective equipment even as they worked in multiple settings for inadequate wages.

That meant that people with disabilities often went without services or had to pay for certain services without additional income supports.

Income itself was also a problem during the pandemic for people with disabilities, even with the former Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and senior or disability supplements. Many people with disabilities have precarious employment and income and were ineligible for CERB or had payments clawed back, said Stienstra.

Almost one in three adult participants with disabilities in a 2020 Statistics Canada survey reported lower income, especially among people who are also Indigenous, women, racialized, LGBTQ2 or living households with children.

Stienstra said that among its recommendations, the report calls for better income supports and for inclusion of people with disabilities in decision-making about needs and services, including during emergencies.

“If you don’t talk to people with disabilities, you will, for example, hold communications for all Canadians without sign language. If you don’t understand the need, if you haven’t got that lived experience, you’re not going to intuitively figure it out.”

The researchers have already shared their report with the COVID-19 disability advisory group for the ESDC and with other conferences.

“This report is intended to be policy-relevant,” said Stienstra. “We developed it so the government could use it.”

She added that she expects the report will help amplify similar recommendations from various advocacy groups.

Speaking of last month’s Disability and Work in Canada Conference, which is held to ensure equality of opportunity and choice in workplaces, Stienstra said, “I hope to make more people aware. I’d also like to introduce thinking about livelihoods, not just employment but how to make a living and a life.”

The full report and additional fact sheets on COVID-19 impacts on housing, health care and other services are available on the Live Work Well Research Centre website.


Dr. Deborah Stienstra