Maybe it’s because they were too busy worrying about other things like the price of bitumen or the fate of the auto industry. Or perhaps it’s because the media don’t think its news that more than six million Canadians – that’s 22 per cent of the over-15 population – report having one or more disabilities that limit them in their daily activities. Whatever the reason, despite an extensive search I was unable to find any news coverage of last week’s release of Statistics Canada’s disability survey.

Making the lack of attention given the report even more surprising is that the numbers from the 2017 survey are much higher than anything that has been reported in the past – about 60 per cent higher than the previous survey, released five years ago. StatsCanada cautions against comparing the 2017 survey results with 2012 and previous reports because the latest survey uses a broader definition of disability, one that’s more “inclusive of persons with cognitive and mental health-related difficulties.” Therefore, the higher numbers in 2017 do not necessarily represent an upward trend.

However, one trend that continues is Nova Scotia’s status as the province with the highest percentage of people self-identifying as having a disability – 30.4 per cent, far and away the highest percentage in the country. Under the previous, less inclusive definition, Nova Scotia’s rate was 18.8 per cent, compared with a national rate of 13.7 per cent. Under the old way of measuring, Nova Scotia was 37 per cent above the national rate; in the 2017 survey it’s about the same, 36 per cent higher than the national rate.

Part of the explanation for Nova Scotia’s high rate of disability is the age of our population. However, as Table 1 shows, this province has the highest rate of disability in younger age categories where the disproportion is even greater in younger groups than it is for the population as a whole. The 15-64 tier is 45 per cent above the national average, the 15-24 age group an astonishing 61 per cent above the national average.


Table 1: Disability by age group and province

Overall % 15-64 15-24 65+
Canada 22.3 18.8 13.1 37.8
Nova Scotia 30.4 27.3 21.1 41.3
NL 23.6 21.4 16.4 32.2
PEI 26.0 22.8 15.7 37.7
NB 26.7 23.0 17.5 39.8
PQ 16.1 14.0 10.4 32.8
ON 24.1 19.8 13.6 43.1
MB 24.8 20.6 13.1 43.9
SK 24.3 20.6 14.1 41.1
AB 21.7 18.6 13.6 41.0
BC 24.7 20.5 13.4 41.7

Source: Canadian Survey on Disability


Surveys have consistently found that Nova Scotians with disabilities are significantly more likely to experience poverty or unemployment. But in addition to those longstanding issues, Nova Scotia policy makers may also want to chew on a couple of other findings from the survey. While there is a disproportionate number of females with disabilities in the overall population (32 per cent vs. 28 per cent) the gender gap is much wider among young people aged 15-24, where 25 per cent of females report having a disability, compared with 17 per cent of males.

Another area is mental health. For Canada as a whole, mental-health related disabilities ranked fourth behind pain-related disability, touching all age groups, and flexibility and mobility that mostly affected seniors. Mental health-related disabilities affected about seven per cent of Canadians but nearly 12 per cent of Nova Scotians, including more than 14 per cent of females.

Alarmingly, the same disproportion exists among young people, 15 to 24. Nationally, 7.8 per cent of 15-24 year-olds report a mental health related disability whereas in Nova Scotia its is 14.1 per cent. Among females 15 to 24 the percentage is 18.5. Thus, nearly one in five females in Nova Scotia report, in the language of the survey, that “daily activities are limited because of difficulties with an emotional, psychological or mental health condition.” Nationally, for women and girls in the 15-24 group it’s much lower, 10.5 per cent. For years the media have carried stories about the deficiencies in Nova Scotia’s mental health system. Government talks about improving resources, but these latest numbers suggest the need for much greater effort.

Dollars lacking

In regard to resources, although the disability survey on its own should be worrying enough, a second release that came out from Statistics Canada last Wednesday should get at least as much attention. The Canadian Classification of Functions of Government compiles federal and provincial spending by various components – amongst others health, housing, education and social protection. The latter component, social protection, includes programs to help children, the elderly, those on low income, the unemployed and the disabled. Despite having the highest rates of disability, Nova Scotia, along with its Maritime neighbours, all spent less per capita on these services in 2017 than the all-province average of $1,879 per person.

The provincial comparisons for Social Protection shown in column two of Table 2 are somewhat distorted by inclusion of exceptional costs, in the case of Quebec, child care and in Saskatchewan, public auto insurance. Column three, showing the sub-category of sickness and disability, gives a better idea of how Nova Scotia compares with other provinces.

Table 2: Disability and per capita $ by province as percent of average, 2017

Province Social Protection Sickness& Disability  Rate
Average all provinces $1,879 $699 100%
Nova Scotia   83.0% 81.0% 136%
NL   73.8% 55.8% 106%
PEI   60.6% 75.8% 117%
NB   82.5% 89.5% 120%
PQ 116.7% 68.3%   72%
ON 100.8% 115.7% 108%
MB   96.6% 110.9% 111%
SK 122.1% 206.1% 109%
AB   93.7% 129.7%   97%
BC   76.7% 63.2% 111%

Source: Statistics Canada Table 10-10-0024-01


As Table 2 shows, the rate of disability in Nova Scotia is 36 per cent higher than the national average but provincial spending on measures to address disabilities is about 20 per cent lower than average. Cost and availability of health services would be one area affected by the squeeze created by higher needs and lower resources, as would accessibility and supported community living. But it is difficult to find hard numbers to measure the impact on the whole range of government programs. One metric that does exist is income assistance for disabled individuals.[1] It applies to only a segment of the 230,000 Nova Scotians with one or more disabilities identified through the StatsCanada survey, but it’s a telling example.

Like Nova Scotia, our neighbouring have-less provinces face a similar dilemma of high rates of disability and low rates of spending on disability. They respond in the same way as Nova Scotia with significantly lower provincial income assistance rates for single individuals. A report released last month (and also overlooked by the media) shows how poorly the Maritime governments treat individuals with disabilities who qualify for income assistance. According to Welfare in Canada 2017 from Maytree – successor to the Caledon Institute of Social Policy – annual disability incomes in the Maritimes range from $9,837 in New Brunswick to $10,264 in Nova Scotia. Eroded by inflation, the purchasing power of those stipends is almost 30 per cent lower than 25 years ago.

By contrast, welfare incomes for individuals with a disability in Ontario are $14,682 a year and for Albertans who qualify for the AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped) program the amount is $19,705. When the cost of living is taken into account, AISH brings recipients in Calgary to just below the poverty line while Ontario’s rates bring Toronto recipients to 70 per cent of the poverty line as determined by StatsCanada’s Market Basket Measure. Halifax and Charlottetown compete for the bottom of the pile – 53 per cent of the MBM in Halifax, 52 per cent in Charlottetown. Moncton comes third last at 54 per cent.

Granted, average incomes and wages for the population as a whole are lower in Nova Scotia than in the rest of the country. And federal transfers to the provinces for social programs have abandoned need as a criterion, even as needs have grown disproportionately in provinces like Nova Scotia. And welfare incomes are inadequate across the board. But with the exception of single employables other recipients have not experienced anything close to the drop in purchasing power endured by people with disabilities.

While the unfair treatment around income assistance affects only a small group, it is indicative of the government’s general  approach to disability. Perhaps now that Stats Canada has revealed that disability directly affects three out of ten Nova Scotians – most of whom are of voting age – government may begin to acknowledge the error of its ways.



[1] Disclosure: My son Sam has a developmental disability but he lives in a group home and is not directly affected by income assistance rates


The original piece on this subject has been edited to provide an age breakdown for mental health related disabilities