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DOING WITHOUT; Living on a disability pension forces one to constantly budget for expenses and to go without many small comforts, say three who know the routine

Cherri Greeno
Kitchener Waterloo Record
11-19-2005? ?

There are few things in life that Brenda Brown ever asks for. The 54-year-old Kitchener woman counts her blessings. She has a roof over her head, some food in her fridge and a computer that lets her play Bingo.

But wouldn't it be nice, she thinks, to be able to buy each of her grandkids that one unforgettable gift they would like for Christmas, that one thing they want more than anything?
She knows she won't be able to do that, though. Not on the $1,200 monthly disability cheque she receives because of her multiple sclerosis. That money, she says, "goes in one hand and out the other."

There's the $414 she pays in rent for her tiny, one-bedroom, run- down apartment in Kitchener. Then there are incidentals: cable, phone and the taxi service she uses to get around town. She's lucky if she has enough left over each month for groceries and clothing.

Then there's Trouble, her four-year-old grey and white cat. She is in heat and walking in circles around Brown's electric wheelchair. Brown would like to get Trouble fixed so she doesn't keep her up at night. But it costs about $200 to do that, money Brown just doesn't have.

Living below the poverty line isn't new to Brown, who left the care of her foster parents when she was 14. She moved around a lot, living on and off the streets of Toronto for a while.

When she was in her early 20s, she moved to Kitchener. She had several factory jobs over the years. But because she didn't have a high-school education, she couldn't find many that paid well.

She married, divorced, and then, at 32, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She had gone to see the doctor after she started walking into walls and losing control of her bladder.

Soon after the diagnosis, her right side started to weaken. She began using a walker and 10 years ago was forced into a wheelchair.

Brown says she doesn't go out much, mainly because she doesn't have the money. And anyway, she likes the security of her apartment, she says.

She doesn't need much for herself, she says, but what she'd really like to do, just once, is to buy her eight grandchildren special gifts for Christmas.

"I find it harder at Christmas time because you can't go and buy the things you'd like to buy," she says.

Brown says she never expected her life to end up like this. She had always hoped to one day be an interior decorator.

Still, she reasons, she isn't doing too badly. After all, she says, "I did OK. I'm here."


Standing in an aisle at a local grocery store, Alex Troeger picks up a bag of croissants and examines them.

"Stuff like this will last awhile," he says. "I put them in the freezer and if I need them, I just thaw them out."

The 47-year-old Kitchener man shops for groceries a couple of times a month, always in the bulk section to ensure he gets his money's worth.

When you live on $780 a month, you're forced to find ways to stretch your dollar.

"You learn to be creative when you don't make a lot of money," Troeger says.

He has relied on a disability cheque from the government for 24 years now, ever since he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had to quit the work force.

It started when he was just 10 and began hearing voices inside his head.

He figured it was part of growing up -- that the voices were imaginary friends that all kids made up. But over the years it became clear his condition was more serious than that. In 1981, when he was 23, doctors told him it was schizophrenia.

Troeger had been working at a local manufacturing plant for about three years at the time, but had just taken a six-month leave of absence because he was finding he couldn't concentrate. The voices had come back.

Unable to return to work, Troeger says, he was forced to apply for disability funding. Now, almost 25 years later, he has found a way to budget for his needs, although it's not easy.

He receives $780 a month and pays $113 for rent in a subsidized apartment. Then there are his bills: heat, phone and groceries. After paying those, he says, he's left with about $50.

While most people couldn't imagine living on such a tight budget, Troeger says you learn to deal with it. You learn to buy peanut butter and bread in bulk to ensure that it lasts. And you never ever spend money on things like going to the movies or having cable television.

Instead, Troeger spends most nights at home in his cozy one- bedroom apartment, listening to music or watching a DVD.

"I don't do much of anything else," he says. "It can be pretty hard, but I guess you get used to it."

Like most people on disability, Troeger finds Christmas is the hardest time of the year. He would like to buy his nieces and nephews presents, he says, but knows he can't.

"The money is not even there to give them something simple."

Still, he is unwilling to feel sorry for himself. He's the kind of guy who looks on the bright side of everything.

"I'd love to have more money," he says. "I would like to go out more often."

But, he adds, "You go by what you have, not what you'd like to have."

And so he does what he can to make it through the days. He sits on several committees, including the Waterloo Regional Homes for Mental Health, and he volunteers for various organizations.

On a wall at home, he proudly displays an arrangement of framed certificates recognizing his volunteer work and the fact he has completed classes in computers, nutrition, fitness, typing and bookkeeping.

Troeger is currently working on getting his certificate in Human Resource Management from Conestoga College. He pays his tuition using some of his savings and receives help through a program offered by Human Resources Development Canada.

Troeger says there's nothing he would like more than to go back to work some day. But because he hasn't had a job since 1981, he doesn't think anyone will hire him. Besides, he'd have to find a job with good benefits that covered the costs of his anti-psychotic medication, now covered by the government.

If he had the chance to have anything in the world, he wouldn't ask for a million dollars or a fancy car, Troeger says. His wish, he says, would be simple, something so many of us take for granted.

"I'd like to have a little money on the side to do things like most people do," he says. "I'd like to be able to go out and do something."


Catherine Devries is lying in an adjustable hospital bed in the corner of her living room, staring at the bare walls and wishing for something she'll likely never get.

Home decor.

The 47-year-old has lived in this two-bedroom apartment in Kitchener for 20 years and still hasn't been able to afford wall hangings or paint.

The $1,209 she gets from her monthly disability cheque is spent as soon as it arrives.

Her rent takes $427, with the rest going toward transportation costs and groceries, plus bills for hydro, natural gas, cable and her phone.

The winter months are the hardest, not just because of Christmas, but because that's when her hydro and heating bills skyrocket. Sometimes, it's impossible to pay every bill.

"Whoever is yelling, 'Disconnect,' will get paid off," she says.

A legal user of medical marijuana, Devries also spends a hefty amount on the drug to help ease pain caused by a variety of spine and bowel conditions. At the end of the month, she says, she is lucky if she has $5 left for herself.

"I almost feel like I'm being penalized because I don't have good health," she says as she adjusts her tiny frame in her bed. "I would love to work. I would love to pay my own way."

But that's not an option right now.

Devries has been struggling with health problems since she was a teenager. She once dreamed of participating in the Olympics and says that as a young girl in Ottawa she trained as a sprinter.

Her health problems began when she was 12. She bent down to pick up a pair of scissors one day and felt "pain like I never felt before" in her right leg.

Doctors later found she had a ruptured disc. Around the same time, she started suffering back pain and over the next seven years was forced to undergo surgery several times.

Problems with her spine and bowels ensued. At 17, she started using a wheelchair.

The illness she struggles with most now is arachnoiditis, a painful disorder in the arachnoid membrane that protects the nerves of the spinal cord.

Her bones are so frail that sometimes the slightest movement can cause a break. Her right foot is in a cast at the moment because she recently tried to step on a spider and fractured her heel.

Over the years, Devries has shrunk from a healthy 160 pounds to just 94.

"It's not that I don't want to eat," she says. "My stomach is not digesting it and my bowels are not getting rid of it."

She points to two garbage pails beside her bed. She keeps them close by because she never knows when she's going to throw up.

She doesn't go out much.

Forgetting the fact she has to be close to a toilet and a garbage can most of the time, Devries doesn't have money to do a lot anyway. She spends most of her days in bed , she says, thinking about what she wants but will likely never get.

Things like an eye exam.

If she goes to the optometrist, she has to pay with post-dated cheques for $20 each.

Things like a new outfit.

Her hospital gown is about all that fits her tiny frame. Other than that, she has two pairs of pants and three tops.

Things like paint and pictures to help make her living room warm and welcoming.

Right now, a multi-coloured lamp stands in the corner, with plastic packaging still wrapped around the metal stand. Devries bought it for $15 a month ago, but still isn't calling it her own. She may have to return it, she says, although she does love the way the dim lights make her apartment feel cozy at night.

"The biggest thing is I can't decorate," she says. "This is not the living room I want."

When her mail comes, the first thing Devries does is sort through the flyers, instantly throwing out those that tempt her, those that make her dream about having money to buy a special Christmas present for her friend, or that fireplace for her living room.

"You want to do things for people at Christmas, but it's so hard to save a couple of dollars," she says.

A friend loaned her an old computer so she can look for work to do online. She has heard that people get paid to answer surveys, Devries says. Maybe she can try that.

She once modeled clothing made for disabled people, but the cost of travelling to Toronto ate up the profits and the hectic schedule took a toll on her health.

She has lots of ideas and lots of talents she would like to put into action, but says it almost doesn't seem worth it. She says she's only allowed to make $150 a month before the government starts deducting money from her cheque.

She's hoping the survey job will work out and that she can make a little extra cash.

Maybe, she thinks, she'll finally be able to get this living room decorated. She isn't sure what she'd buy first.

A new couch? New blinds? A little paint?

"It's a very big toss up," she says.


The Record uses Statistics Canada's Low-Income Cut-Off (LICO) to approximate the number of poor or struggling people in Waterloo Region.

The most recent census data (2001) show 47,450 such children, women and men in our midst.

The Canadian Council on Social Development, to whom Waterloo Region turns for before-tax Low-Income Cut-Offs, defines as poor anyone whose income was less than these amounts in 2004:

Single person, $17,515.

Two-person family, $21,804.

Three-person family, $26,805.

Four-person family, $32,546.

Five-person family, $36,912.


It's sad that so many with real disabilities don't receive more "current-realistic" financial and other assistance to help them lead simple better quality lives and that if they are fortunate enough to earn any extra income, that they are restricted to only a certain amount exempted before deductions. It really is a like a discrimination for being disabled/limited ... and when dealing with Provincial assistance especially, the rules are much the same as for regular assistance. There seems to be no flexibility according to individual needs and situations/expenses. One size (income) fits all? Hmmmm ... the systems suck in so many ways, but what can you do when they are the only system and safety net we have in place. Thank god we have "this" much ... but it ain't enough/realistic yet ... I guess working for changes is about all we can do? And help each other as much as we can to raise our quality of life/days experiences.

Wouldn't it be nice to have a "Random Acts of Kindness For People With Disabilities on Low Income" group happening? :) Find out what an individual needs, and somehow provide it, or the means/ways to it? There is abundance all around us, wasted, both of time, abilities, and material things ...just think if those with that "excess abundance" were to share that excess ... what a difference such a small or large thing would make for someone else ... what a nice thought? :)
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