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Being disabled in T&T; how the Disability Grant serves as a poverty trap

The Government in its 2019 Budget statement announced with great fanfare that the Disability Grant has increased from $1,800 to $2,000. A little extra cacada from the government always sounds good, not so?

Let’s put this into real perspective. I asked Tyron Bishop, disability advocate, to talk about this his personal experience with receiving the grant and here is what he had to say:

Photo: Living with a disability.

“The Disability Grant is $2,000 per month, which comes down to a mere $67.70 a day. Now $66.70 is supposed to pay a taxi to take you from point A to point B because of the unreliability and the unavailability of the ELDAMO bus service.

“A taxi can cost anything from $100 to $400 to go the bank to access this $2,000 or even less depending on what the bank takes for service charges. You have to eat while you are out [and] the cost of a meal starts at $35 to $40 in most eateries.

“Let us go to monthly expenses. It is often assumed that persons with disabilities live in homes with very supportive relatives who wouldn’t ask them for a contribution from ‘their little pittance’. This is quite untrue.”

The budget breakdown that Mr Bishop gave to me can look like this:

Groceries $800, Toiletries $200, Utility Bills $700, Centrum $100.

Once those bills are paid, Tyron laments: “That’s $1,800 [finished]. I can’t leave my house any other time of the month because I paid the $200 to get the money in the first place.”

Tyron’s budget rundown exposes what is known as the ‘crip tax’. The crip tax can be defined as the extra hidden financial costs that results from having a disability and needing certain accommodations/treatment for said disability.

Photo: The Disability Grant in Trinidad and Tobago just just $2,000 per month.

Transportation costs are often extra because public transport is inaccessible and unreliable, which leads person with disabilities to rely on hiring private cars at high prices. The price for Tyron to go the bank to get his disability grant is $200 as he is a wheelchair user. The price for an average person to travel the same route using public transportation is a mere $10.

Another crip tax that falls very heavily on  disabled people is the cost of medical devices—such as wheelchairs and walkers—as well as medications and private specialists. While we do have a free healthcare system in theory, in practice hidden costs arise when there are medicine shortages, when the medical device needed is not readily supplied for free by the healthcare system, or when necessary medical tests are only done privately.

In Tyron’s case, he  cannot even afford that crip tax of going to a private doctor. Often for many people on the disability grant, there is a stark choice between food and the medical supplies needed in order to live.

The crip tax is not a phenomenon that is unique to Trinidad and Tobago. Right now, the Twitter hashtag #TheCostofBeingDisabled has disabled people worldwide talking about the hidden costs that come with disability and chronic illness.

At a legislative level, the Disability Grant seems designed to entrench a disabled person in poverty. The grant is $400 less than the National Minimum Wage of $2,400. A cursory review of classified ads reveal the cheapest one bedroom apartment is $1,500.

Photo: A disabled person considers their next move.

The Disability Grant is based on the medical and social model of welfare policy that was a holdover from colonialist welfare policy. In this policy framework, disabled persons always lived with an extended family who would supplement whatever income was lacking.

This grant does not take into account the reality of  disabled person who is a single parent or may need to escape intimate partner violence, or abuse by caregivers and other members of their respective families.

It certainly would not take into account if a person with disability wished to live independently of their family or disabled heads of households. As it stands, the Public Assistance Act (1951)—even after being amended—was deliberately designed so that disabled persons may not earn an excess of $12,000 per annum, which works out to $1,000 a month.

So if a person with disability supplements his/her income according to the law, his or her total income can only just be over minimum wage at around $2,800 per month. In practice, however, if  a disabled person were to take employment that would be at the legal minimum wage in Trinidad and Tobago, the grant would be cut as obviously, the person would be earning above the $1,000 ceiling.

A disabled person who earns minimum wage to supplement the grant faces two choices: forgo the grant altogether or lie to the Government about his earnings and commit fraud.

This choice brings new dilemmas with it. Should the disabled person decide to forgo the stability of having at least some income with the Grant to obtain employment in the open market?

Photo: Disabled persons have a tough choice between the Disabled Grant and precarious employment.

The open market has become increasingly precarious for non-disabled people with the advent of contract employment. Employment for disabled people is an even dicier proposition, even if they are hired.

The Equal Opportunity Act offers limited protection in employment for persons with disabilities, mainly because the exceptions found in Section 14 of the Act that applies to employment raises the bar so high for a complaint of disability employment discrimination to be even considered, much less adjudicated upon.

This dilemma of inadequate welfare grants vs precarious employment for disabled people creates a ‘benefit trap’ where very often disabled people choose to have a stable poverty level income over  the chance to earn more in a precarious employment market.

So, with poverty-level benefits, crip tax, precarious employment and scant labour protection for persons with disabilities; it is very easy to see how the lil cacada that the Government has given disabled people in Trinidad & Tobago is really a ‘caca-don’t’.

About Nicole Cowie

Nicole Cowie
Nicole Cowie is a mental health/disability activist, public speaker and writer. She is the creator of the viral Twitter hashtag, #DisabledSnark and has written both in the Catholic News and Outlish.com. She is a former recipient of the Wayne Narajit Prize for Social Disability Studies and the National Scholarship for Persons with Disabilities.

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One comment

  1. While politicians behave like gutter trash with each other and seek to line their own pockets, it’s the ordinary people who suffer.

    But I can’t help think back to that adage, ‘people get the leaders they elect’. If people keep making the choices they have done in the past, it’s hard to see how things will change.