At issue: Income security for persons with disabilities in Canada

A more coordinated and client-oriented approach is needed for disability benefit programs in Canada, according to a new Issue Briefing from the Institute for Work & Health (IWH).

Published: February 15, 2011

Imagine this scene: On a weekday morning in Toronto, three separate motor vehicle accidents result in identical spinal cord injuries to three male drivers.

Each driver is permanently disabled as a result of his injury. One of the men is self-employed; the second is an insurance company manager with 10 years of employment tenure; the third is a commercial truck driver employed by a transportation company.

As the third driver had an injury arising in the course of employment, he would be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. The second driver would very likely have an employment-based long-term disability plan. The first driver would not be eligible for workers’ compensation, and may not have a long-term disability plan.

Access to disability income support and to programs that could help them get back to work will be very different among these three workers.

A recent Issue Briefing from the Institute for Work & Health examines seven distinct disability benefit programs in Canada and finds that they are not well-coordinated.

The current array of disability programs is not a system, but a disconnected array of federal, provincial and private programs, some of which pay little or no attention to helping disabled workers reintegrate into the workforce, says John Stapleton, the lead author of the briefing.

The seven programs summarized in the briefing are:

  • Canada Pension Plan Disability (CPP-D) and Quebec Pension Plan Disability (QPP-D);
  • Employment Insurance sickness benefit;
  • veterans’ benefits for disability;
  • tax measures, specifically the Disability Tax Credit (which includes the Working Income Tax Benefit-Disability) and the Registered Disability Savings Plan;
  • provincial social assistance disability benefits;
  • provincial workers’ compensation benefits; and
  • employment-based long-term disability plans.
Estimated Disability Benefit Expenditures Canada, 2008-2009
  $ million
Canada and Quebec Pension Plans disability benefit $4,100
Employment Insurance sickness benefit $1,000
Veterans' benefits for disability $2,000
Tax measures $435
Provincial workers' compensation benefits $5,400
Provincial social assistance disability benefits $8,100
Employment-based long-term disability plans $4,700
Total $25,735

In 2008-2009, these seven sources provided an estimated $25.7 billion in income benefits or tax credits to people with disabilities in Canada. (The table below shows the breakdown by program.)

These programs differ in terms of eligibility, disability definitions, benefit generosity, their treatment of benefits from other programs, and their treatment of income from a partial return to work. Therefore, outcomes for workers and their families can vary substantially, depending on program eligibility.

The briefing suggests that improved coherence in disability programs could simplify benefit administration, provide fairer treatment of persons with disabilities, and increase participation in work and/or community activities. A recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on disability income security programs in Canada comes to similar conclusions.

We agree with the OECD that ongoing dialogue among key stakeholders is needed to develop a more coordinated, client-oriented approach to disability programs in Canada, says Dr. Cameron Mustard, IWH president.

You can access the Issue Briefing and the OECD report by visiting: