Deaf man takes B.C. ministry to Human Rights Tribunal over delays in income assistance

June 23, 2015 | Cheryl Chan | The Province
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When Christopher Shay applied for income assistance in September, he was at his wit’s end.

Shay, who is deaf, had applied for various jobs since August, a month after taking a hiatus from his computer science program at Douglas College, but failed to find employment.

Worried about paying the rent for his Coquitlam apartment, he applied for income assistance on Sept. 30, specifying “immediate needs,” a request which, according to the ministry’s own service standards, should have been addressed on the same business day.

But it took the 42-year-old five weeks to receive a welfare cheque — an outrageous waiting period, said advocates, for someone who needed help immediately.

“Five weeks is not a reasonable amount of time to be waiting,” Shay told The Province on Tuesday through sign language interpreter Alana McKenna in his lawyer’s office. “I was able to receive income assistance, but what was the point of that? I suffered for five weeks for no reason.”

Shay is now taking MSDSI to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, alleging discrimination on the basis of physical disability.

Shay is now taking the provincial Ministry of Social Development to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, alleging discrimination on the basis of physical disability.

Despite knowing he was deaf, “the ministry failed to accommodate me and actually made things worse for me by failing to comply with their own legislation and policy because they did not give me an immediate needs assessment on an urgent basis,” Shay said in the complaint, which was approved by the tribunal on June 4.

Shay said that, unlike hearing people, he is unable to call the welfare office and was dependent on others to call on his behalf or had to visit the office in person to talk to a case worker.

The visits and calls went nowhere, he said. The ministry was supposed to provide an interpreter to help him, but that wasn’t always the case. Often, he had to scribble notes back and forth with the person behind the counter. “It isn’t an effective method of communication.”

Shay admits he made mistakes that could have slowed down his application, such as initially providing the wrong email address and showing up 45 minutes late to an appointment. But the latter was moot, said Shay, because a promised interpreter wasn’t there anyway.

I felt like I was going to lose everything and live on the streets

“They couldn’t serve me anyway,” said Shay. “And they didn’t care. They’re like, ‘Oh well, you’re deaf, so we can’t serve you.’ That’s what it felt like.”

During the five-week wait, Shay received three eviction notices from his landlord. He borrowed money from friends to pay rent and relied on the food bank. He lost 20 pounds and sank into a depression.

“I felt like I was going to lose everything and live on the streets,” recalled Shay. “I felt very ashamed of what was happening. The system itself felt like it didn’t care about my immediate needs. It was a horrible, terrible time.”

Shay didn’t receive his first cheque from the ministry until Nov. 7. He then had to apply to get the funds backdated to October. No explanation was given for the delay.

Lawyer Sarah Khan of the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre said Shay’s case is not unique but is “pretty extreme” compared to the usual wait time of one to three weeks.

Khan’s non-profit organization, which advocates for low-income and disadvantaged people, had filed a complaint against the ministry with the B.C. Ombudsperson in 2005 for systemic delays, particularly with the immediate needs assessment. It filed another complaint on behalf of several community organizations last month.

“We’ve heard countless stories over the years,” said Khan. “But we think because (Shay) is deaf and has communication barriers, the delays were more significant for him than (they) would have been for other people.”

In an emailed statement, Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell said she understands Shay’s frustration but cannot comment because the matter is before the human rights tribunal.

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