Untold Stories: Tracy

Tracy - A Disability Settlement Counsellor in Mississauga, ON

Tracy is a Disability Settlement Counsellor who also identifies as a person with a disability. Tracy has been negotiating the social service system her entire life, both through her personal experiences and for two decades as a professional settlement sector employee.

Even though she is qualified to support people with disabilities, most of her clients do not identify as being disabled. She estimates that “10% of new immigrants come with some kind of health problem or develop health issues in the first 5 years.” However, she believes that due to their sociocultural understanding of disability they may wait to apply for support services until they have obtained citizenship.

Tracy also explains that due to the structure of the system, newcomers with disabilities are not referred to her until settlement agencies have attempted to procure services which have been refused. Without a comprehensive understanding of how disability supports work or an understanding of disability-related needs beyond paperwork for financial assistance and basic medical support, it’s not surprising they run into issues. She suggests that service providers develop a better understanding of the needs of newcomers with disabilities, and a wider knowledge-base of resources available to them.

As a person with a disability Tracy has experienced some of the systemic barriers people with disabilities experience. Tracy advises that settlement sector employees should take a holistic approach to serving newcomers with disabilities and their families. This approach includes a thorough needs assessment by organizations. It is critical for them to assess priorities and project needs into the future, regarding how to make services more accessible to clients with disabilities. They also need a plan for how to link the client to more specialized services, with an in-depth understanding of how the outcome of each step is intertwined.

For all newcomers, with or without disabilities, there are language and cultural barriers to accessing services. Moreover, asking for services may be difficult for newcomers that have traditionally looked to their community, family and friends for support rather than the government. In addition, they may receive the wrong or incorrect information from their networks. They can also feel alienated by the bureaucracy, as Tracy describes:

“For some services you’re dealing with a moving target in terms of who’s looking after your file and whose the person you’re supposed to be asking questions to and ‘no, this person is no longer working here’...’but that person’s the only person who knows me well enough to make the decision that I need right now’...”

The slow pace of bureaucracy can become extremely frustrating. What may seem to be a simple request may require months of communication and multiple steps to complete.

Tracy finds ways to support her clients, noting that, “If the straight ahead or prescribed system doesn’t work or isn’t appropriate... We do a piecemeal thing.” For instance, if a client is not eligible for Ontario Disability Support Program, Tracy can locate individual programs to provide drug benefits, housing, and home-care separately. This knowledge of the system is critical. Having someone like Tracy to navigate the network and monitor progress ensures her clients can gain access to supports.

Tracy feels it is also important to coach newcomers in learning how to self-advocate. She provides practical communication tips for interacting with government and other service providers, such as following up verbal conversations with a written note. The note would summarize their understanding, ask for clarification/confirmation, and request a response, since no response would imply consent. This paper trail can be a valuable tool for her clients as a form of documentation.

“A top-down understanding of disability” at Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) is what Tracy believes could improve the system. She describes a problematic funding scheme that inherently prevents newcomers with disabilities from having their needs met. She recognizes that while CIC describes success qualitatively, they fund based on quantity of clients served.

This organizational contradiction results in a no-win situation for both employees and newcomers with disabilities. A settlement worker may feel vulnerable about their employment by feeling as though they have to choose between adequately supporting their clients and meeting the demands put forth by their employer given the set benchmark for numbers. This is just one example of how systemic barriers prevent newcomers with disabilities from being served.

Tracy suggest that a new funding formula be created and greater education be provided for settlement workers that goes beyond the customer service standard. This may in turn better support the integration of newcomers with disabilities. This involves understanding the full scope of available programs, how to support clients with disabilities, and how to support their self-advocacy.

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