More than one-third of New Brunswickers are living with a disability, according to the latest Statistics Canada data. At 35.3 per cent, it's the second highest rate in Canada. The national average is 27 per cent.
New Brunswick's disability rate is also increasing faster than anywhere else in the country — rising by 8.6 percentage points between 2017 and 2022.
Haley Flaro is the executive director of Ability New Brunswick, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering and advocating for people living with a mobility disability in N.B.
"We weren't surprised given the influx in referrals we've seen from people with a mobility disability in the last several years needing services," she said, on Information Morning Fredericton.
"But we're certainly quite concerned because there's some significant impacts here on disability services and disability policy in New Brunswick that are going to require ... some big attention."
New Brunswickers with a diagnosis of pain disability are waiting up to three-and-a-half years to see a pain management specialist, says Haley Flaro, executive director of Ability New Brunswick. (Radio-Canada)
Aging population, pain management issues
Flaro says among the trends in the Statistics Canada report is the increased disability that accompanies aging.
"Ensuring access to appropriate rehabilitation and care and independent living and accessible housing for seniors is really critical," she said.
Also concerning, said Flaro, is the increase in pain disability diagnosis — accompanied by a long wait for help.
"We really need some drastic change here," she said. "Pain disabilities in New Brunswick have a three-and-a-half year wait list for pain management and that's what we have ... between two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half years."
"We really need to turn our minds to some of these policy issues to get them rectified," she said.
The mental health connection
Although Ability New Brunswick is focused on mobility disabilities, Flaro said there is a clear connection to mental health problems.
"Between 30 and 35 per cent of the individuals we work with also have a diagnosis of a mental health disability," she said.
"We're seeing an increase in diagnosis of depression, of anxiety conditions and certainly seeing the impact of things such as poverty impacting people's mental wellness ... because people with a disability and single parents are the two most impoverished populations in our province."
A call for policy change
Flaro said the alarming disability rates and trends in New Brunswick need to be addressed in disability accessibility legislation now under public review.
"What are the implications here for health policy, social service delivery, you know, accessible housing?" she said.
Flaro says ensuring access to appropriate rehabilitation and care and independent living and accessible housing for seniors is 'really critical.' (Shutterstock)
"I would hope that our housing corporation looked at this data and said, wow, you know, are we ensuring that we're ... committing to an adequate number of accessible housing units to be built over the next five years?"
Flaro said it's a myth that disability accessibility is solely about the built environment.
"It's about disability service delivery. It's about employment regulations on the hiring of people with disabilities. It'll be about, you know, disability health services, adapted sport and recreation," she said.
"The framework [for accessibility legislation] is out there for public review right now, and that's going to be a huge cultural foundation to bring attention to disability services and policy in New Brunswick."
Legislation to be introduced in spring, says minister
In an emailed statement, Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour Minister Arlene Dunn said government tabled the framework for accessibility legislation in December because "ensuring that those living with a disability enjoy the same opportunities for full and equal participation in society as everyone else creates a province that makes everyone feel included and valued."
Dunn said the ongoing consultation by the select committee on accessibility will help the government "to introduce legislative framework sometime during the spring legislative session."