For 11 years, Andrea Wetteland says her BC Bus Pass has been her “lifeline,” allowing her to get around town without thinking how much transportation is eating into her fixed disability income from the province.
This year, however, Wetteland is faced with what she says is an unwelcome dilemma – whether to use the majority of the first increase to disability assistance in nine years to augment her already tight budget, or to use it on that vital lifeline, which connects her with programs, friends and visits with her children.
When Finance Minister and Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong brought in the province’s 2016 budget, it came with what seemed like good news for disability advocates, who had long called for disability assistance rates to be raised to keep up with inflation.
The 2016 budget aimed to address that by boosting the disability benefit by $77 per month. But as the government gave more, it also eliminated a special $45/year bus pass for the disabled. Now, those who wish to take the bus can pay $52 per month, along with a $45 yearly administrative fee.
Currently, 35,000 people around the province use the bus pass.
Those who choose to buy a pass will be left with an additional $25 per month over the previous disability allowance, for a year-over-year increase of just under three per cent.
It’s a move the province says is meant to give disability recipients more choice and put those in rural areas on level terms.
But disability advocates have reacted angrily, calling the move “mean-spirited” and saying it will force the disabled to choose between transportation and necessities like food.
A petition has been launched that organizers hope will hit 20,000 names by Wednesday.
Wetteland, who is 28, has fragile X syndrome, a genetic disorder that brings with it learning disabilities and some cognitive impairment.
Chatty and outgoing, Wetteland is high-functioning and has held down a four-days-a-week job at A&W for the last eight months. She lives on her own, and budgets carefully for her expenses and the ever-rising cost of living.
She says she can afford to pay her bills only because she augments her disability cheque with her earnings from her minimum-wage job.
Wetteland can’t drive, and counts on the bus for both her social life and to continue accessing those community programs that have given her the skills to obtain and keep a job. She also uses it to visit her two children, whom she had at a young age and gave up for adoption.
“I need the bus to go anywhere.”
Wetteland appreciates that the government’s move gives her a choice in how to spend the additional money, and she’s considering using single tickets rather than a monthly pass. But the dilemma isn’t particularly welcome.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
In a statement to The News, the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation said the “changes are about fairness and equity. Currently, about 45,000 people on disability assistance do not receive any transportation supports. As of September, everyone on disability assistance will receive the same level of benefits.”
The ministry noted that those with a bus pass will see their benefits increase by $25 per month, that the province has the fourth-highest disability assistance rates in the country, and that B.C. will continue to offer a discounted bus pass for the disabled. The discounts are provided by transit system operators, not the province.
The government has said the budget for the BC Bus Pass program was $20 million.
But for the disabled who rely on buses to stay involved in their community, the move will force difficult choices, according to Rick Beckett, an employment specialist at Abbotsford Community Services (ACS).
Beckett says access to transportation is key for many of the clients he works with. He said the government’s move “is a disincentive for people to get employment and purchase a bus pass.”
He said making transportation more expensive is likely to discourage some from venturing forth from their homes and building the skills they need to be happy and productive.
The increase to the disability benefit was welcomed, but the bus pass hike has left service providers disappointed.
“It’s giving with one hand and taking with the other.”