A small number of Albertans with disabilities who receive benefits from the province have started a grassroots group to raise awareness about what it's like to be on the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program, or AISH.
They call themselves ARISE — AISH Recipients in Search of Equity. About 10 members meet virtually every Monday to share personal stories and discuss the main issues they face.
One of them even joins the virtual call from her hospital bed in Edmonton, says founder Janet Nass from Red Deer, Alta.
In her seventh year of being on AISH, Nass formed the group to dispel myths about being an AISH recipient, efficiently fight for change and give others an outlet.
"By sharing and being vulnerable and opening up, it allows other people to say, 'Hey, you know what, me too. I have a voice,'" said Nass.
"The common denominator is we are human beings and we're fighting to be recognized as autonomous human beings that deserve dignity and deserve human rights."
So far, Nass says members have raised a number of concerns, including staying afloat on AISH payments and living in fear of their income being clawed back from working, filing for employment insurance or even being married.
She says that's atop navigating widespread stereotypes that AISH is easy to access and recipients are "scamming the system."
ARISE's first goal is to get the province to reverse the AISH payment date back to a few days before the start of the month, so they have enough money in their bank accounts to pay their bills on time — an issue Albertans have been rallying for since the change was made in 2020.
Improving the effectiveness of AISH
According to a statement from the Ministry of Seniors, Community and Social Services, Alberta's government is continuing to support the province's most vulnerable.
"At $1,787 a month, we have the highest AISH rate among the provinces. We will continue to provide indexed AISH supports as directed in Minister Nixon's mandate letter," said press secretary Heather Barlow in an emailed statement.
She says benefit rates for AISH recipients increased by six per cent in January, and will continue to be indexed annually to keep pace with inflation.
But local anti-poverty organization Vibrant Communities Calgary says that may not be enough — and there are ways to improve the effectiveness of the program.
Lee Stevens is a policy and research specialist at Vibrant Communities Calgary. She was also the lead author of the organization's new report. (Submitted by Lee Stevens)
Earlier this month, they released a policy brief tackling six main problems with the program.
Solutions include calculating the index to inflation rates for food and rent, removing the marriage and cohabitating policy, clawing back less money with employment insurance, and more.
"The promise of our social safety net is that we will take care of people who are unable to earn a livelihood," said Lee Stevens, lead author of the report and the organization's policy and research specialist.
"When our social safety net doesn't work and people who are unable to earn a livelihood are still not being taken care of by government, when they're being left behind — it's almost like a promise has been broken."
Grande Prairie resident Thomas Cheesman recently joined ARISE. He says he's grateful for AISH — without it, he'd be doomed — but there are some policies that he says aren't fair.
That includes the marriage and cohabitating policy, in which AISH recipients can lose some or all benefits depending on their partner's income.
Cheesman says he's also eagerly awaiting news on the federal government's new Canada Disability Benefit.
As for Nass, she says the group will continue tackling these issues and fighting for policy change for AISH recipients.
She would love for all disability advocacy groups to come together, she says.
"I'm seeing these themes, these issues, being repeated by all these other groups out there. There's such a need for us to come together. If we could come together, that's where the power would be."