Living with disabilities, Halifax poet-comedian says system is failing him

Josh Dunn was finally getting paid for his poetry and he didn’t have to rely on his grandmother’s home-cooked meals to help him make ends meet.

Dunn had reason to be optimistic back in August 2015. His application for a $6,000 Arts Nova Scotia grant had been approved, a solid followup to the success of his one-man play in 2013.

His life was moving forward.

But the grant turned out to be something of a curse. On the one hand, it provided three months of meaningful work, but on the other, he was promptly kicked off social assistance.

Dunn would have been entitled to a percentage of his allowance if the government considered the grant part-time work.

He said he lost his appeal to the Community Services Department to be compensated fairly and to remain on income assistance. He ended up having to reapply and was approved, albeit a month later than expected.

After paying $1,500 to an architect for drawings to accompany his poetry, he earned only $1,500 more than if he hadn’t worked and continued to receive his $900-a-month allowance. 

“It kind of scared me. I guess I expected a little more support,” recalled Dunn. “Through my work, I’m raising awareness. I think it’s very important, in general, to show that not only are people living with serious disabilities just like everyone else, quote unquote, but we can be extraordinary.”

To date, the province has provided few details on a four-year, $80-million poverty reduction plan it introduced during the spring election campaign.

Beyond pledging to increase income-assistance rates across the board, the government intends to offer a small break to people on assistance who are also working part time. Under the proposed plan, they would be allowed to earn $250 a month, $100 more than the current amount, before the government deducts 70 per cent of their earnings. The plan, which also includes a $20-million study, contains no timelines and does not work toward any specific targets.

Dunn, who copes with a number of serious disabilities, including cerebral palsy, a neurogenic bladder and chronic insomnia, is unable to work a regular nine-to-five job. He says the system is set up in a way that makes it difficult for him and others to get ahead financially if they find work.

After his bills are paid, Dunn’s left with about $20 a week for spending money. That figure would be essentially zero if not for the six home-cooked meals his mother and grandmother provide him each week.

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