Kaitlyn Layden remembers the intense joy she felt after getting engaged to Lucas Massey in 2017. After over four years together, she was ready for the next step — getting married, moving in together and maybe adopting a few pets.
That was until she learned she might lose her only source of income.
"If I get married [with] the way the system is, I would lose my disability support, including my social assistance cheque, my rent subsidy, my health benefits, my provincial health card and my home care support," said Layden, who has cerebral palsy and general anxiety disorder.
"My partner is able-bodied and fully working. And that is why I would lose that."
The Social Development 6.1 Household Income Policy states that people who receive social assistance are subject to losing their support if they live with two or more persons for the purpose of sharing the responsibilities of a household.
The formation of an economic household and a household income above a certain threshold, depending on the circumstance, will often result in assistance being refused, cancelled or decreased.
There are currently 15 exceptions to the policy. People with disabilities are only exempt from this policy if all members of the household are also certified blind, deaf or disabled.
"I'm not asking for any more money than I already receive or any more financial support I already receive as a single person," said Layden. "I'm just asking not to be penalized for my decision to get married, because getting married does not change my disability needs."
The department is currently reviewing the household income policy as part of an ongoing social assistance reform process.
Layden has launched petitions, email campaigns and written various letters and articles to try to get this policy revised.
If the policy doesn't change, Layden says she'll need to find work as a disability consultant, and her fiancé will have to get a promotion before they could finally consider making things work.
"Lucas is my partner. He should not be primarily responsible to be my caretaker."
The Department of Social Development says Minister Bruce Fitch was not available for comment. While the department is not permitted to discuss specific cases due to matters of privacy, it "understands that living situations can be fluid, and that challenges can arise unexpectedly."
"This policy was developed to ensure that Social Development does not discriminate against people on the basis of gender, marital status, or sexual orientation," said the department in an email to the CBC. "We are always looking at ways to ensure resources are used effectively."
Household income policies similar nationwide
The director of social policy at New Brunswick Association for Community Living, Ken Pike, said cases like Layden's would be treated similarly across the country.
"If we could make some changes this would be breaking some new ground for people with a disability, which would be good to lead some reform around how we address the income needs of people with a disability," said Pike.
Part of the problem is how social assistance programs were made versus how they are being used today.
Pike said the household income policy and other programs have their roots in the 1960s and were intended as a last resort for people who may have lost their jobs or who have no other source of income.
"I think what we'd like to see in terms of broader change is reform around income support for persons with a disability really having some different philosophical background to it," said Pike, who is a lawyer specializing in human rights and disability issues.
"[We need to ensure] that people who live with a disability, who face barriers to employment and have additional needs, that we're going to look at income support benefits through a different light than the old social welfare model."
New legislation for persons with disabilities
The Disability Action Plan for Persons with a Disability was created in July last year to address specific needs of people with disabilities in the province.
Persons with disabilities account for an estimated 26.7 per cent of the province's population according to the Disability Action Plan, well above the 22.3 per cent seen at a national level.
43 recommendations were submitted as part of the plan. Randy Dickinson, the chairperson for the Premier's Council on Disabilities, says recommendation number five targets the household income policy and other social programs by calling for the removal of persons with disabilities from regular categories under social assistance and instead creating a separate Disability Benefits Program.
"When we talk about accessibility, we're talking about all of the things that would lead to social and economic inclusion," said Dickinson. "It will not just be building codes, but it will include income security, social assistance, policies, transportation, employment, education, training, all of the parameters that are involved in creating a society in New Brunswick that's more able to accommodate and include persons — especially those with more serious disabilities — to be able to participate in activities and the economy.
On Jun. 9, the Select Committee on Accessibility in New Brunswick was formed to help act on the Disability Action Plan. Dickinson says the announcement of its public engagement on next steps is said to take place later this summer.
He's hopeful this will rally community support and push for policies that better support persons with disabilities.
"I'm hoping that many individuals like Kaitlyn, people who belong to local community support groups or volunteer associations, as well as the established disability organizations will take the opportunity to bring the message loud and clear to government that it's time for a change."