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Ombudsman says Alberta government must fix unfair rules for disability benefit applicants

Alberta’s ombudsman says a regulation used to decide if adults with disabilities qualify for government benefits is “unreasonable and improperly discriminatory.”

In a report made public on Tuesday, Ombudsman Kevin Brezinski said the government’s Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD) program must reconsider a 21-year-old man’s application for benefits after unfairly denying him based on the man’s intelligence quotient (IQ) test score.

Brezinski said the government has been aware of this pitfall for more than a decade since a court ruled in 2013 that a woman was unfairly denied benefits based on her IQ test score.

“It is crucial to have supports that allow people with disabilities to be fully included in community life,” Brezinski wrote.

The ombudsman said his investigation found the ministry of Seniors, Community and Social Services has reviewed the relevant regulation three times since the 2013 court decision, yet failed to fix the problem.

He said it could result in developmentally disabled Albertans being denied benefits they should be entitled to. An embargoed copy of the report was provided to CBC News on Monday.

The PDD program provides financial benefits and programs to adults with developmental disabilities who need help with daily living, finding employment, or who have specialized needs.

The province spent more than $1 billion on the program in 2022-23, which funded around 12,900 adults with developmental disabilities, according to the ministry’s annual report.

Brezinksi’s report said a mother contacted his office after her adult son was denied PDD benefits. The report said her son was born with developmental disabilities and autism spectrum disorder. A capacity assessment determined the man will always need help from other adults to make major life and financial decisions.

A psychologist who assessed the man as part of his PDD application performed IQ tests, which resulted in a full-scale IQ score of 79. However, the psychologist said the overall score did not accurately reflect his abilities because there was a wide disparity in his performance on different parts of the test.

A regulation that spells out eligibility for the program says an adult must have an IQ score of 70 or lower, which is two standard deviations below average, or the person is unable to complete the test.

The program denied the man’s PDD application because his IQ score was too high. A panel tasked with hearing appeals concluded the man’s IQ score was invalid and they couldn’t rely on it, but said panel members were powerless to change the ministry’s decision.

The ombudsman said the man was in a “no-win situation” because the review panel said existing law prevented members from using other means to determine his abilities.

An Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench judge ruled on a similar case in 2013 of a woman with autism denied PDD benefits because her full-scale IQ result was too high.

In that case, the judge said an appeal panel wrongly denied the woman benefits because of her unreliable IQ test result, and called the legislation “flawed.”

Brezinski’s report said the provincial government has done nothing to rectify the problem since, and called government inaction “unreasonable and unfair to vulnerable Albertans.”

The College of Alberta Psychologists also told ombudsman investigators that it’s outdated practice to rely on IQ tests alone when determining how functional a person on the autism spectrum would be while living independently.

Brezinski recommended immediately amending the rules so the government would assess PDD applicants by current psychological standards. He also recommended the ministry reconsider the man’s benefits application.

He said the ministry hasn’t yet committed to implementing the recommendations, but that the regulation in question is scheduled for a review in September.

CBC News has contacted the government for a response.

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