Creating a System Navigator for People with Disabilities

by Laiba Asad 

This summer, I am interning with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD): a national human rights organization that advocates for people with disabilities through law reform, public education, litigation, and consultation. The majority of my time at CCD has been spent assisting the organization develop a system navigator to help people with disabilities better understand the federal and provincial/territorial disability benefits they are entitled to, as well as the application and appeal processes for each benefit. The system navigator aims to improve the chances of people with disabilities in securing benefits and services and, in doing so, lead to better outcomes for them and their families. 

According to a report entitled ‘Looking Into Poverty: Income Sources of Poor People with Disabilities in Canada,’ people with disabilities who are of working age are around twice as likely as other Canadians to live below the poverty line. The report also found that while the largest component of the income of poor people without disabilities is market income, generally from employment, the majority of the income of working-age poor people with disabilities comes from social assistance, along with federal and provincial child benefits and the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans. Therefore, it is imperative that people with disabilities be able to effectively access disability benefits. In the CCD’s System Navigation Pilot Project Feasibility Study, service providers and CCD representatives noted that people with disabilities may face challenges when trying to access different benefits and services and that for people with disabilities who face multiple marginalization — such as those with low income, Indigenous people, new immigrants, and women — it is disproportionately challenging Some of the main barriers that people with disabilities face when accessing government programs, benefits, and services include:

  • a general lack of awareness of the services, benefits, and programs offered by the different levels of government;
  • complex eligibility criteria and application procedures;
  • a lack of clarity on how all the services, benefits, and programs offered by the different levels of government interact with each other and affect the amount of support received;
  • hidden costs related to the applications such as costs of medical documentation; and
  • the absence of a common definition of disability and a national strategy.²

To address these barriers, the CCD’s system navigator aims to have three components: 

(1) provide navigation services including one-on-one individualized meetings in-person, via telephone, email or online live chat to help applicants identity their needs and eligibility, complete their application forms, refer them to other services providers, etc; 

(2) serve as an online Information Hub that will share information about the different programs, benefits, and services available to people with disabilities in a variety of formats; and 

(3) make training available online or in place for organizations for people with disabilities so that they can provide the CCD’s system navigation services.³

Part of my role entails helping develop the Information Hub notably by conducting research on the disability benefits provided by the federal and provincial/territorial governments, drafting information sheets for each of the benefits explaining their eligibility criteria, application process, and appeal process, and creating diagrams summarizing the procedures. 

Although it is sometimes challenging to ensure that the information sheets and diagrams are accessible and in plain language, I look forward to continuing to support the CCD with their system navigator project and collaborating with others in the organization to make the Information Hub more accessible during my internship. 

[1] See Susan L. Hardie et al, “Council of Canadians with Disabilities: System Navigation Pilot Project Feasibility Study” at 15 (2021) Canadian Centre on Disability Studies Incorporated operating as Eviance. 

[2] See Djenana Jalovcic, “System Navigator Service Consultancy Report” at 26 (2020) Council of Canadians with Disabilities. 

[3] See Ibid at 28-30.

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