Disability advocacy groups have major challenge ahead following cuts to the census and StatsCan’s disability survey

image: Abilities.ca

Campbell Clark, Globe and Mail

Making the long-form census voluntary instead of mandatory is not the first change to the way Statistics Canada collects data since the Conservatives took office. Several surveys have been discontinued.

The Participation and Activity Limitation Survey, Statscan’s major data collection on individuals with disabilities, was cut by the government department that paid for it, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

The Harper government has told advocacy groups a census-related survey that gathers statistics about disabilities will eventually be replaced by a database culled from tax information, welfare rolls and similar databanks – but there’s skepticism about whether that information will be as reliable.   “We’ve got a huge challenge here. We had something that was working,” said Laurie Beachell, national co-ordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. The government has promised the new database will provide information more often than PALS, which was conducted every five years, with the next one scheduled for 2011. “We don’t know how reliable it will be yet,” Mr. Beachell said.

The people who received the PALS questionnaire were those who reported a disability on their census form. Because of the high response rate of the mandatory census, it was thought to be a representative sample.

Questions have been raised about whether voluntary surveys get a good response rate from people with disabilities. People in low-income brackets tend to respond less to voluntary surveys, and a disproportionately high number of individuals with disabilities have low incomes. Advocacy groups want data that not only indicate where people with disabilities live, but allow them to track whether disability policies are effective, and whether there are unidentified problems.

Gathering information from administrative databases can be useful, but none are as comprehensive as PALS: Information based on how many people claimed disability tax credits would not include those who didn’t file tax returns, and the provinces use different definitions of disabilities on their welfare rolls.

“The databases will only give you a picture of some people,” Mr. Beachell said.