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Digital portraits of individuals living with disabilities in B.C. created by Vancouver Island-based artist Roz MacLean. Photos: Roz MacLean

Painting a clearer picture of living on disability assistance in B.C.

A Vancouver Island-based artist is raising awareness about disability assistance in B.C. through a portrait and interview series.

By Negin Nia and McKenna Hadley-Burke , in City Culture Feature story Health Life , on February 12, 2021 Tags: ,

The “Insufficient Art Project” offers a glimpse into the lives of the many people who rely on disability assistance in B.C. 

The project is the initiative of a Vancouver Island-based artist, Roz MacLean, who was inspired to highlight the experiences of people living on disability assistance through a portrait and interview series.  

“I really just like to bring people to the words that they have to say for themselves. I felt like this pairing could hopefully be an inviting way to engage with the content people have to share,” she said.

The focus of MacLean’s interviews revolves around participants’ stories of living with a disability and navigating the province’s disability assistance benefit. The supplemental $300 COVID-19 benefit was released during the first months of the pandemic, but is now being reduced and will be eliminated in March, in spite of protests from advocates. Without the benefit, a single person on disability assistance receives up to $1,183 a month.

Roz MacLean, artist and creator of the Insufficient Art Project. Photo: Roz MacLean

For Vicki Wang, a swimmer with Special Olympics B.C., the opportunity to see her story and her portrait on the website was a validating moment. She recalls crying when she saw her words published. 

“I was like, Oh my god, oh my god’,” she said. “I was like, happy.” 

Wang said she hopes to get the opportunity to talk to MacLean again and tell more of her story if the opportunity arises. 

Vicki Wang, participant in the Insufficient Art Project. Photo: Roz MacLean

Participants shared stories of struggling to cover medical costs, barely affording food and rent, contending with ongoing mental-health challenges, and confronting homelessness. 

“I think the big common thread is just to have enough to live and not be fearful or not be stressed or physically suffering,” said MacLean.

MacLean, who has worked as a special-education assistant for over a decade, changed the project’s original focus from the experiences of people with disabilities in the education system after she saw the realities of the pandemic’s impact on B.C.’s disability community. 

“It became clear to me that it made a lot more sense for me to like to align this project to kind of amplify what was already happening and what was already being called for from the disability community,” she said. 

Disability assistance rates in B.C. compared to the poverty line in B.C.

UBC professor Jennifer Gagnon, who holds a PhD in political science and focused her research in disability studies, said that this project offers a window into the financial experience of people with disabilities.

“It’s a very small number of the people who have disabilities that actually qualify for provincial PWD benefits,” she said. 

She herself does not collect the benefit, but she believes it is important for people to understand the range of experiences people have.

“When we talk about the PWD assistance model, it assumes that the government is the expert in disabled lives and what disabled people need,” Gagnon said. “Whereas these portraits and the interviews, the narratives are very strongly signalling that, no, it’s the person who lives with the barrier that is the expert and knows what they need.” 

Professor Jennifer Gagnon, sessional lecturer in the departments of political science, School of Journalism Writing and Media, and Vantage College. Photo: Jennifer Gagnon

MacLean’s project assistant, Gillian Backlin, has a personal connection to the work. She relies on disability assistance and runs a blog and online shop called Spastic and Fantastic, that focus on disability awareness. Backlin said the art component of the project is what sets it apart from other advocacy initiatives. 

“I think art has a way of engaging people in different ways than just an article might,” Backlin said. “It makes it a bit more personable to be able to see the person behind the story and what they may be struggling with. It adds more humanity.”

Gillian Backlin, project assistant for the Insufficient Art Project. Photo: Gillian Backlin

Backlin said she had mixed feelings when the government announced it would be adding the $300 benefit to regular income and disability assistance rates.

“I was happy but, at the same time, it was like, ‘Why hasn’t this been addressed before? And why are people just realizing that our regular amount isn’t enough to live on? Like, why did it take a pandemic for this to sort of happen?’” Backlin said.

Bridgette, participant in the Insufficient Art Project. Photo: Roz MacLean

Bridgette, a participant who asked to be identified by only her first name, said, “what I’m praying for, in a perfect world, is that those government officials read these… and just say, look, you know, these are real people. These aren’t just statistics … These are actual living, breathing people every day that look after children … that are artists that are just people, and our stories are legit.”

For participant Theresa-Maria Fournier, taking part in the project and sharing her story with MacLean led to an unexpected realization.

Theresa-Maria Fournier, participant in the Insufficient Art Project. Photo: Roz MacLean

“One of the things actually that has come from me doing the project with Roz is I wasn’t very comfortable talking about having a brain injury and it’s still kind of hard sometimes,” Fournier said. “But going through the process with Roz took some of the stigma away. And I’m comfortable with myself, and with talking about having a brain injury. That kind of surprised me.”

MacLean said she plans to eventually turn the interview and portrait series into an e-book or e-zine. She said she hopes this will allow for the participants’ stories to encourage awareness and become part of the public record.