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Alberta won’t fix eligibility rules ombudsman calls ‘unfair’ for people with disabilities

Alberta’s social services minister says the government plans to maintain eligibility rules for programs that the province’s ombudsman says are “unreasonable and unduly discriminatory” against people with disabilities.

Seniors, Community and Social Services Minister Jason Nixon said Tuesday his government has no plans to abandon the use of intelligence quotient (IQ) tests to determine whether applicants are eligible for the program for people with developmental disabilities (PDD).

“That’s the agenda we’re pursuing,” Nixon told reporters at the Legislature. “This is a success story. And we will continue to ensure PDD continues to serve Albertans in need for decades to come.”

In a report released Tuesday, OhMbudsman Kevin Brezinski said the PDD program had to reconsider a 21-year-old man’s application for benefits after unfairly denying it based on the man’s IQ test results.

Brezinksi’s report states that Janice Zenari contacted his office in 2022 after her adult son, Evan, was denied PDD benefits. The report states that her son was born with developmental disabilities and autism spectrum disorder. A capacity assessment determined that Evan will always need the help of other adults to make important decisions in his life and finances.

Nixon said the government would not review Evan Zenari’s request and that “the mediator is entitled to his opinion.”

Brezinski said the government has been aware of this pitfall for more than a decade, since a court ruled in 2013 that a woman was unfairly denied benefits based on her IQ test score.

A man in a suit poses for a photo.
Alberta Ombudsman Kevin Brezinski says the government’s developmental disabilities (PDD) program must re-examine a 21-year-old man’s application for benefits after he was unfairly denied based on his intelligence quotient test result. (Submitted by the Alberta Ombudsman)

“Unfortunately, this has gone on for too long,” Brezinski said in an interview Tuesday.

The ombudsman said his investigation found the Ministry of Seniors, Community and Social Services had revised the relevant regulation three times since the 2013 court ruling, but failed to resolve the problem.

Additionally, the majority of people consulted during a 2018 evaluation of the PDD program said they wanted the eligibility criteria changed because not everyone with an IQ above 70 is capable of performing only the tasks of daily life in complete safety.

The PDD program provides financial benefits and programs to adults with developmental disabilities who need help with daily living, finding employment, or who have specialized needs.

The province spent more than $1 billion on the program in 2022-23, which funded approximately 12,900 adults with developmental disabilities, according to the ministry’s annual report. This year’s budget is approximately $1.2 billion.

A regulation that specifies eligibility for the program states that an adult must have an IQ of 70 or lower, two standard deviations below the mean, or the person will not be able to complete the test.

Although Evan Zenari’s IQ was measured at 79, the psychologist who evaluated him said the overall score did not give an accurate picture because his deficits were greater in certain parts of the test.

After Evan Zenari was denied PDD, his mother, Janice Zenari, appealed the decision. A hearing panel concluded that his IQ score was unreliable, but said panel members were powerless to change the department’s decision.

Brezinski called the situation a “no-win situation” and recommended that the ministry reconsider Zenari’s case.

He said at least four other families have contacted his office in recent years with the same complaint: The result of an IQ test disqualifies a disabled person from TED benefits. In some of these cases, the government then granted benefits, highlighting inconsistent standards, he explained.

Brezinski recommended immediately changing the rules so that the government evaluates ASD applicants according to current psychological standards.

In an interview, Janice Zenari said her son struggled without the type of program that could help him find long-term employment.

“He lost a lot of his confidence,” she said. “He has bouts of depression. It’s really affected his mental state and his emotional well-being.”

Zenari wonders how Evan will fare in the future after he leaves. For example, Evan would have trouble explaining where to get picked up for a ride or how to catch a bus on time, she said.

“Will he become homeless?” she says. “Without support, he is taking such a risk that we don’t even want to think about what could happen. It’s very sad.”

A judge ruled in 2013 that the regulations were unfair

An Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench judge ruled on a similar case in 2013 in which an autistic woman was denied benefits for PDD because her overall IQ score was too high.

In that case, the judge said an appeals panel wrongly denied the woman benefits because of her unreliable IQ test scores, and called the legislation “flawed.”

Brezinski’s report called the government’s inaction since that court ruling “unreasonable and unfair to vulnerable Albertans.”

Alberta College psychologists also told Ombudsman investigators that it is outdated to rely solely on IQ tests to determine how functional an autistic person will be while living independently.

Nixon told reporters that department staff rely on criteria other than IQ to determine eligibility for the program.

Marie Renaud, Edmonton, NDP
New Democratic MP Marie Renaud is the spokesperson for community and social services. (Janet French/CBC)

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the minister is ignoring experts who say it would be better to assess a person’s ability to live and work independently rather than relying on their IQ.

“This is classic UCP,” Notley told reporters at the Legislature Tuesday. “Let’s find a way to save money at the expense of the most vulnerable people in our community and society.”

At a news conference earlier Tuesday, NDP community and social services critic Marie Renaud said that since being elected in 2019, the UCP government has rigidly enforced eligibility rules to the PDD to save money. She said it costs more if people with developmental disabilities end up in the health care system or in prison.

Zenari said she hopes the government will make its policy more equitable for other families in the same situation.

“I hope they give vulnerable people the rights they deserve,” she said. “They deserve the right to live like anyone else and have the same opportunities as anyone else.”